Vaccine holdouts, not boosters, top concern for Biden

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WASHINGTON — Even as President Biden announced on Friday morning that some Americans are now eligible to receive a coronavirus booster shot, he blamed the unvaccinated for prolonging the pandemic, since they account for the overwhelming majority of new hospitalizations and deaths.

That made for a challenging message, one that comes amid confusion about who needs a booster shot, and when. In his remarks, the president seemed less concerned with those looking for a third shot than those who have yet to get their first.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden at the White House on Friday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“We still have over 70 million Americans who’ve failed to get a single shot,” he said. “To make matters worse, there are elected officials actively working to undermine, with false information, the fight against COVID-19,” Biden added, in an apparent reference to Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has downplayed vaccinations and preventive measures like mask mandates.

The president spoke from the White House hours after the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, approved a booster plan for Americans 65 and older, as well as those in certain risk groups. Joking about his own age — the president is 78 — Biden said he would be following the new guidance.

“I’ll be getting my booster shot. I’m not exactly sure when I’m going to do it. As soon as I can,” he said.

The president also emphasized a reality that has sometimes been lost in the discussion of rare breakthrough positive cases among the vaccinated. “You’re as safe as possible. You’re in good shape,” Biden reassured. “And we’re doing everything we can to keep it that way, which is where the booster comes in.”

The approval of boosters comes after weeks of bitter debate at the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration regarding whether such additional shots are necessary. So far, they are available only to recipients of the Pfizer vaccine, which appears to show the greatest decline in efficacy over time.

Regulatory agencies are scrutinizing efficacy data for the vaccines developed by Moderna, which used technology similar to Pfizer’s, and Johnson & Johnson, whose vaccine requires a single shot.

Doses containing Pfizer vaccines to be administered is seen ahead of the launch of the VaxuMzansi National Vaccine Day Campaign at the Gandhi Phoenix Settlement in Bhambayi township, north of Durban , on September 24, 2021. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)
Syringes containing the Pfizer vaccine. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

“You still have a high degree of protection,” Biden said, addressing the nearly 83 million of Americans who have been inoculated with the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. (About 99 million people have been vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine.) He said that news on “whether and when” they would need boosters would be forthcoming.

But as he has done before, Biden turned his ire to the unvaccinated, blaming them for fueling the current Delta surge. While vaccinated people can spread the coronavirus, they are for the most part extremely unlikely to do so. They are also highly unlikely to become ill in the first place.

About a quarter of eligible Americans have not been inoculated against COVID-19, the president pointed out, despite the widespread availability of vaccines and a months-long effort by federal, state and local public health and elected officials to encourage the reluctant.

“They are causing a lot of damage. The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, overrunning emergency rooms and intensive care units,” he said, adding that they “also put our economic recovery at risk.”

Earlier this month, Biden issued vaccination mandates for federal employees, as well as for private companies with more than 100 employees. Some have argued that the requirements do not go far enough, since private employers still have the option of offering regular testing to holdouts.

The president appeared to be channeling the frustration of people who were vaccinated long ago and have lost patience with those who refuse to get their shots.

“The refusal to get vaccinated has cost all of us,” an evidently exasperated Biden said.


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