The US is unlikely to meet Joe Biden’s target of getting at least 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by the Fourth of July holiday, as a top expert warned on Wednesday that those reluctant to take the shot are “extremely vulnerable” to the Delta variant of the coronavirus, originating in India.
The Delta variant has become the dominant strain among new cases in the UK and even though new cases of Covid-19 are down more than 90% in the US since January of this year, the new variant is spreading.
The White House has launched a month-long blitz to combat vaccine hesitancy and a lack of urgency to get shots, particularly in the south and midwest, but it is increasingly resigned to missing the president’s vaccination target.
The administration insists that even if the goal isn’t reached, it will have little effect on the overall US recovery, which is already ahead of where Biden said it would be months ago.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University school of public health, said that the Delta variant was by far the most contagious variant of the coronavirus yet experienced in the pandemic and potentially the most lethal.
“It really is a problem,” he told NBC’s Today show on Wednesday morning.
Jha said the vaccines currently available in the US “hold up well” against the Delta variant but warned there are too many Americans declining to get vaccinated at present, despite vaccines being available to them.
“We still have a lot of Americans who have not been vaccinated and they are extremely vulnerable,” he said of susceptibility to the Delta variant.
“If you have been vaccinated you are going to be fine,” he added.
About 15.5 million unvaccinated adults need to receive at least one dose in the next four weeks for Biden to meet his goal of 70% of US adults getting vaccinated partially or fully by 4 July.
The pace of new vaccinations in the US has dropped below 400,000 people a day – down from a high of nearly 2 million a day two months ago.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday that he still hopes the goal will be met “and if we don’t, we’re going to continue to keep pushing”.
So far 14 states have reached 70% coverage among adults, with about a dozen more on pace to reach the milestone by 4 July. But the state-to-state variation is stark.
Fauci said the administration is “pleading” with states, particularly those with low vaccination rates, to step up their efforts in the coming months, though some of the states trailing behind are hardly sharing the urgency.
In Mississippi, which trails the nation with only about 34% of its population vaccinated, the Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has called Biden’s goal “arbitrary, to say the least”.
The vaccination rate in the state has dropped off so sharply that it would take the better part of a year for the state to reach the 70% target.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Reeves said he encouraged residents to get vaccinated, but that the more important marker was the decline in cases in the state.
That sentiment makes winning over people like University of Mississippi student Mary Crane, 20, all the more important to Biden meeting his goal. She hasn’t felt much urgency to get the Covid-19 vaccine because she’s already had the virus, and the family she’s living with during the summer break has been vaccinated.
“Initially, it was to wait on everyone else to get it and not take a vaccine,” she said, explaining why she hasn’t been vaccinated. “But now that it’s available, there’s really not a reason I haven’t gotten it, other than I just haven’t gotten it.”
Crane, 20, said she’s seen classmates who were eager to get the vaccine right away – there was a trend when the vaccine first came out of posting vaccination cards on social media sites like Instagram. But now that the vaccine has been available for a few months, Crane said she sees fewer young people talking about it.
“Everything’s pretty much back to normal now,” she said.