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As coronavirus vaccination rates start to slow in the United States, President Joe Biden on Tuesday set a new goal to deliver at least one shot to 70% of adult Americans by July 4 while he tries to convince the hesitant to get inoculated.
Some states are leaving more than half of their available doses unordered, so Biden also announced that his administration will now shift doses from states with less need to states with greater demand for shots, the Associated Press reported. He also called for states to make vaccines available on a walk-in basis, and he will tell pharmacies to do the same.
"You do need to get vaccinated," Biden said from the White House Tuesday. "Even if your chance of getting seriously ill is low, why take the risk? It could save your life or the lives of somebody you love."
Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in California, told The New York Times he was "overjoyed" by the announcement. He had pushed for loosening vaccine allocation limits last month, when Michigan was struggling with a virus surge and could not get desperately needed extra vaccine doses.
The federal government's new flexibility will allow for states to respond rapidly when they see "the temperatures rising on the heat map of the country," Topol told the Times.
So far, more than 56% of American adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more than 106 million are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States is now administering first doses at a rate of about 965,000 per day — half the rate of three weeks ago, but almost twice as fast as needed to meet Biden's new target, the AP reported.
"I'd like to get it to 100%, but I think realistically we can get to that place between now and July Fourth," Biden said of his new goal.
His administration will target three areas as it tries to hasten the pace of vaccinations:
- Adults who need more convincing to take the vaccine.
- Those who have struggled or are in no hurry to obtain a shot.
- Adolescents aged 12-15, once federal authorities approve vaccination for that age group.
Biden's push comes just as his administration has shifted from setting a target for "herd immunity" to delivering as many shots into arms as possible. To that end, the government's focus will be on expanding smaller, mobile vaccination clinics to deliver doses in harder-to-reach communities. It is also spending hundreds of millions on education campaigns and creating greater access to shots through community organizations that can help bring people to clinics, the AP reported.
Ahead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's expected authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for kids aged 12 to 15, the White House is also developing plans to speed vaccinations for that age group. Biden urged states to administer at least one dose to their adolescents by July 4 and to deliver doses to pediatricians' offices and other trusted locations, with the aim of getting many young people fully vaccinated by the start of the next school year, the AP reported.
Though White House officials privately acknowledge the steep challenge, Biden sounded an optimistic note on Tuesday.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is actually growing brighter and brighter," Biden said.
FDA set to approve Pfizer vaccine for 12 and older
The FDA plans to expand emergency use of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine by next week so that children as young as 12 can be immunized.
After Pfizer's trial in adolescents showed its vaccine worked as well in teens as it does in adults, the FDA started preparing to add an amendment covering that age group to the vaccine's emergency use authorization, theTimes reported. Federal officials familiar with the agency's plans who were not authorized to speak publicly relayed the information, the Times said.
Medical experts welcomed the news, calling it a major step forward in the U.S. vaccination campaign.
Vaccinating children is key to raising the level of immunity in the population, experts told the Times, and it could put school administrators, teachers and parents at ease if millions of students become eligible for vaccinations before schools open in September.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and the father of two teenage daughters, said the approval would be a big moment for families like his.
"It just ends all concerns about being able to have a pretty normal fall for high schoolers," he told the Times. "It's great for them, it's great for schools, for families who have kids in this age range."
Still, with demand for vaccines falling among adult Americans -- and much of the world clamoring for the surplus of American-made vaccines -- some experts said the United States should donate excess shots to India and other countries that have had severe outbreaks.
"From an ethical perspective, we should not be prioritizing people like them [adolescents] over people in countries like India," Dr. Rupali Limaye, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who studies vaccine use, told the Times.
But Jha said that the United States now has enough vaccine supply to both give shots to young Americans and to help the rest of the world. More than 105 million adults in the United States have been fully vaccinated, but 44 percent of American adults still have not yet received even one shot.
While most adolescents seem to be spared from severe COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration's top COVID-19 adviser, has stressed the importance of expanding vaccination efforts to include them and even younger children.
Herd immunity may be an elusive goal
While more than half of American adults have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, many scientists and public health experts now believe that herd immunity cannot be reached in the foreseeable future.
Instead, the virus will most likely become a manageable threat that will circulate in the United States for years to come, causing hospitalizations and deaths but in much smaller numbers, the Times reported.
How much smaller depends to a great degree on how many get vaccinated and how the coronavirus evolves. The virus is changing quickly, new variants are spreading easily and vaccination is moving too slowly for herd immunity to be established as quickly as some experts had hoped.
"The virus is unlikely to go away," Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the Times. "But we want to do all we can to check that it's likely to become a mild infection."
The drive for herd immunity convinced many Americans it was worthwhile to be vaccinated, so vaccine skeptics may use the latest thinking from public health experts to avoid being vaccinated, the Times noted. But vaccinations remain the key to turning the virus into a threat that can be tamed, experts said.
Fauci acknowledged the shift in thinking.
"People were getting confused and thinking you're never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is," he told the Times. "That's why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I'm saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down."
Early on, herd immunity was estimated to be about 60% to 70% of the population. Most experts, including Fauci, thought the United States could reach that threshold once vaccines were available.
But as vaccine distribution hit its stride this spring, the threshold target rose, mostly because of the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus. The predominant variant now circulating in the United States, called B.1.1.7 and first spotted in the U.K., is about 60 percent more transmissible.
Experts now estimate the herd immunity threshold to be at least 80 percent. If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the threshold estimate will rise again, the Times reported.
"What we want to do at the very least is get to a point where we have just really sporadic little flare-ups," Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the Times. "That would be a very sensible target in this country, where we have an excellent vaccine and the ability to deliver it."
As of Wednesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 32.5 million, while the death toll topped 578,500, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, over 154.4 million cases had been reported by Wednesday, with more than 3.2 million people dead from COVID-19.
SOURCES: Associated Press; The New York Times
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