Biden to address pandemic-weary nation

WASHINGTON — President Biden will address the nation on Thursday, the White House said, laying out a “six-pronged strategy” to combat the coronavirus pandemic throughout the fall. The speech will likely mark a stark departure from the upbeat announcements of last spring, as vaccination rates rose and infection rates declined.

The Delta variant frustrated Biden’s plans for a “summer of freedom.” With cold weather approaching and children returning to school, he faces a challenge in telling Americans that the end is still in sight — but that he, and they, must do more to bring the pandemic to its conclusion.

President Biden speaks to local leaders in Hillsborough Township, N.J. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
President Biden speaks to local leaders in Hillsborough Township, N.J., on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Americans’ confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic is waning. A new poll from Gallup found that only 40 percent of Americans say the president is communicating clearly on the pandemic; 42 percent say he lacks clarity. “This is the first time Americans have not been more positive than negative about his communication, as a presidential candidate or president-elect in 2020 or as president this year,” Gallup senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones wrote of those results on Tuesday.

A senior administration official disputed the idea that the president is frustrated by the trajectory of the pandemic. Biden is “focused on getting more people vaccinated and putting an end to this virus,” the official said.

Thursday’s speech will come almost exactly six months since the president put the nation on a “war footing” against the coronavirus. “We’re making some real progress now,” he said during that address, delivered during primetime from the East Room of the White House.

Since that day, 142 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, a monumental achievement by any measure. But that figure accounts for only slightly more than half of the nation’s entire population — 53 percent — which has given the Delta variant plenty of opportunity to spread. Vaccinations are rising again, to an average of about 950,000 per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But deaths from COVID-19 have been rising, too, to more than 1,300 per day. By contrast, deaths had fallen to below 300 per day in mid-June.

Nurse Anita Huang gives the Pfizer vaccine to Justin Mataalii during a vaccination clinic at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Nurse Anita Huang gives a vaccine shot to Justin Mataalii on Sept. 1 at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

“His administration will pull every lever to get the pandemic under control,” the White House said in a statement. Biden will not, however, issue a national vaccine mandate. Speaking to reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the federal government does not have the authority to issue such a rule.

Absent such a dramatic move, the president will have to resort to piecemeal measures that both entice the unvaccinated and make life increasingly uncomfortable for them. In July, French President Emmanuel Macron made vaccination mandatory for dining and travel, as well as for health care workers in France.

The White House would not say what the new initiatives announced on Thursday will be, only that they would reach “across the public and private sectors.” The president has frequently touted vaccine requirements issued in recent months by private corporations. And he has issued focused mandates, including for employees of the federal government and nursing home workers.

Another contentious issue Biden will need to address is that of booster shots for recipients of the two-dose mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna. Data from Israel showed declining protection from the Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant. Regulators in the United States are divided about whether to administer booster shots, and when.

Psaki told reporters that the administration would take “advice and counsel” from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC, even as public health officials in the U.S. closely watch how the pandemic progresses in Israel, which has a high vaccination rate and a robust scientific establishment that collaborates frequently with American researchers and institutions.

“We’ll base it on our own health advisers,” Psaki said.

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