U.S. President Joe Biden is directing the 50 states, as well as territories and tribal governments, to make all adults eligible for the coronavirus vaccine by the start of May, he told the country Thursday evening.
“That’s much earlier than expected,” the president said in his first prime-time television address. “That doesn't mean everyone's going to have that shot immediately. But it means you're able to get in line beginning May 1.”
By the end of May, the country expects to have enough vaccine supply available for all adults, a senior administration official told reporters before the president’s speech.
Marking one year since COVID-19 began to sweep the United States, Biden said his goal was to have limited gatherings on Independence Day this year.
“By July the Fourth, there's a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” he said.
“That doesn't mean large events, with lots of people together. But it does mean small groups will be able to get together after this long, hard year that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but where we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”
Before the president’s address, on his 50th day in office, his administration announced the deployment of 4,000 more active-duty troops to support vaccination efforts, bringing the total number deployed to more than 6,000.
Dentists, paramedics, physician assistants and veterinarians, as well as medical and health care students, will also be authorized as vaccinators, according to officials.
Much of commerce in America ceased in March 2020 as the coronavirus enveloped state after state in a country unprepared for its biggest health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic.
A year ago, the virus “was met with silence and spread unchecked — denial for days, weeks and months. That led to more deaths, more infections, more stress and more loneliness,” Biden said, criticizing the initial response of the administration of his predecessor, Donald Trump, which later ramped up research and production of the vaccines now being administered.
“While it was different for everyone, we all lost something,” Biden said of the past year of suffering.
Even as thousands of schools remain shut to classroom instruction and millions of workers are still unemployed, there are signs of a slow return to normal. Some state governors are easing restrictions, allowing businesses to expand operations, despite warnings from federal health officials that reopening too soon could cause COVID-19 cases to spike.
But the president cautioned, “If we don't stay vigilant and the conditions change, then we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track.”
The Thursday evening speech was intended, in part, for Biden to “level with the American people of what is required of them” as the country struggles to overcome the pandemic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
American Rescue Plan
Biden’s address followed congressional approval of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, that passed with only the votes of lawmakers of the president’s Democratic Party. Republicans uniformly opposed it, saying the aid was too costly and, in some cases, included assistance that had nothing to do with the virus.
Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris watching in the Oval Office, signed the bill into law hours ahead of the speech, saying, “This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation — working people and middle-class folks, the people who built the country — a fighting chance.”
While many organizations across the country offered praise Thursday for the package, the pharmaceutical industry had some criticism.
"Unfortunately, the legislation also includes changes to drug pricing policies that have nothing to do with lowering costs for patients,” Stephen Ubl, chief executive officer and president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a statement.
“Our industry is willing to come to the table and help advance reforms that will ensure medicines are affordable, but piecemeal changes that fail to address the systemic challenges facing patients is the wrong approach,” Ubl said.
Citing public opinion polls, Harris said at a White House event Thursday, “The vast majority of Americans, regardless of who they voted for in the last election, support the American Rescue Plan.”
At the event, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, thanked the vice president for many provisions in the legislation, “most especially for the money to reopen schools."
The executive director of the grassroots group MomsRising, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, told Harris, "We are doing a happy dance.”
Harris quipped in reply, "Thanks to all the moms who are not just rising but have risen.”
Hitting the road
Biden and Harris will travel next week to tell the American people how they “can benefit from the components of the package moving forward,” Psaki told reporters Thursday. “They’re eager to get out there on the road.”
The president has visits scheduled to the states of Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Nearly 530,000 Americans have been killed by the virus and 29.2 million have been infected, more than in any other country in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told NBC News' "Today" show on Thursday. “By the time we get into the mid- to late summer, early fall, we're going to start seeing a big, big difference."
As of Wednesday, about 96 million vaccine shots had been administered in the U.S., government data showed, with about 10% of the U.S. adult population having received both shots of the two-shot regimen required with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations. A single-shot dose produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson has become available more recently.
Except for Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, all the living former U.S. presidents and their spouses are appearing in a new public service announcement encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.
That campaign is meant to overcome hesitancy among many in the country to get vaccinated, especially in minority communities.
“The polarized environment has generated a lack of faith in science and in public health guidelines that is truly harmful, not just for this coronavirus pandemic,” said Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
“Going forward I hope that we can get back to a place where people can receive public health messages without worrying about the underlying motivations or without finding them to be political rather than scientific,” Baicker, a health economist, told VOA.
Biden appealed Thursday for “every American to do their part. That's not hyperbole, I need you. I need you to get vaccinated when it's your turn.”
The president predicted that “if we all do our part, this country will be vaccinated soon, our economy will be on the mend, our kids will be back in school and we’ll have proven once again that this country can do anything.”
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.