WASHINGTON — The first time President Biden rolled up his sleeve on national television, it was December 2020. He had just been elected several weeks before; the coronavirus vaccine was a scarce, sought-after entity in much of the country.
Since then, he has repeated the ritual several times, receiving his booster shots on camera as a means of encouraging vaccine uptake.
And he did so again on Tuesday, when a member of the White House medical unit administered the bivalent booster that is intended to protect recipients from Omicron subvariants that now dominate the pandemic, as well as from the original coronavirus strain.
Acceptance of the booster has been slow, with only 19.4 million people having received their bivalent booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden acknowledged that reality as he prepared for his own vaccination.
“It's incredibly effective, but the truth is, not enough people are getting it," he said in his prepared remarks, which he delivered while flanked by top public health officials in his administration, including Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response team coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, his top pandemic adviser, as well as the chief executives of several pharmacy chains.
“As a country, we have a choice to make,” Biden said, referencing the months ahead, when colder weather will drive people indoors and the holiday season will see heavy travel and large gatherings.
Later in the day, Jha made the same point. “We know that winter is a time when viruses like COVID spread more easily,” he said at a White House press briefing, also speaking about the possibility of a tridemic: that is, the threat of COVID-19, the influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, spreading rampantly all at once.
Jha added that with a concerted vaccination effort, “this winter can look very different than last winter, or the winter before.”
Last year, the Omicron variant arrived right after Thanksgiving in the United States, causing disruptions for much of the winter. Since then, it has continued to splinter into subvariants. Although the bivalent booster (so named because it protects against both the original strain of the coronavirus and the Omicron variation) cannot be updated to counter every new variant, the Biden administration believes that as long as COVID-19 continues to evolve along the Omicron lineage, the booster will prove effective, with one shot per year sufficient to keep people updated on their coronavirus inoculations.
“If you get it, you're protected,” the president said on Tuesday.
There was a measure of exasperation to his voice. Although he declared the pandemic over last month, that amounted to little more than rhetorical flourish, one that many public health experts criticized as premature. Even as life has returned to something approaching normalcy in the United States, some 350 people continue to die across the country each day.
“Virtually every COVID death in America is preventable — virtually everyone," Biden said, referencing the widespread availability of Paxlovid, a pill that is highly effective in treating serious COVID-19. When he contracted COVID in July, Biden took Paxlovid and never experienced more than mild symptoms.
The question for Biden and public health officials is how to return public attention to a pandemic that many have relegated to the past — and how to keep the nation from backsliding in the months to come.
“We’ve made the vaccines free and available. We’ve made the tests free and available. We’ve made Paxlovid free and available. Please use them,” Biden pleaded with the American public. “Use them.”