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"The last mile": Will Biden hit his 70% vaccinated goal by July 4?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Perhaps we might have made it already — had we not acted as though vaccination changed nothing for the vaccinated. Massive enthusiasm for miracle COVID-19 vaccines have essentially evaporated even as Joe Biden and his new administration set goals for administration that would have potentially achieved herd immunity in the United States.

Instead of boosting that enthusiasm early by emphasizing the freedom from restrictions vaccines represent, the political and medical establishment kept insisting on buzz-killing recommendations for further restrictions. Now the momentum appears to have failed, the Washington Post reports, just shy of the “last mile” of the end of the pandemic:

Plummeting vaccination rates have turned what officials hoped would be the “last mile” of the coronavirus immunization campaign into a marathon, threatening President Biden’s goal of getting shots to at least 70 percent of adults by July 4.

The United States is averaging fewer than 1 million shots per day, a decline of more than two-thirds from the peak of 3.4 million in April, according to The Washington Post’s seven-day analysis, even though all adults and children over age 12 are now eligible.

Small armies of health workers and volunteers often outnumber the people showing up to get shots at clinics around the country, from a drive-through site in Chattanooga, Tenn., to a gymnasium in Provo, Utah, or a park in Raleigh, N.C.

The slowdown is national — with every state down at least two-thirds from its peak — and particularly felt across the South and Midwest. Twelve states, including Utah, Oklahoma, Montana, the Dakotas and West Virginia, have seen vaccinations fall below 15 daily shots per 10,000 residents; Alabama had just four people per 10,000 residents get vaccinated last week.

To some extent, this was predictable. The most enthusiastic lined up immediately, while the most opposed won’t line up at all. The trick was to get those in between to commit to vaccination. That would have been best done with specific incentives for receiving inoculations, ie, take off masks, open businesses, and get back to normal. Gun-shy policymakers have been reluctant to assume that risk, even as states that removed mask mandates months ago show no ill effects from reopening.

If the choice is between masking up with an inoculation and masking up without one, it’s no wonder that adoption of the former has been weak among those who weren’t enthusiastic about the vaccines in the first place.

How close will we get? That’s a good question, but not the only one that might matter. As of this morning, the US has administered 301.6 million doses of vaccines, with 371.5 million delivered to clinics and other vaccination locations. Fifty-three percent of the adult population has been fully vaccinated in six months, which is itself an astounding logistical feat, considering the supply restrictions in the first three months. Almost 50% of Americans above the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated. Three-quarters of all seniors — those most vulnerable — are now fully protected.

This, however, is the problem — sort of:

After peaking in early April, the average daily vaccination rate has declined at about the same rate as it climbed the previous couple of months. We’re now down to 871K per day in the 7-day average, under the rate we had on January 12th of this year and the lowest rate in the Biden presidency — while swimming in vaccine doses, unlike in early January. Some of this decline is predictable as fewer Americans are unvaccinated, but it’s falling too fast and too soon. Even at a rate of one million a day, we would need months to get the rest of the population to full vaccination.

What about 70% by July 4? In a population of 331 million, we only have 139 million fully vaccinated. Even if we’re just aiming at the adult population, we have 136 million out of ~260 million fully vaccinated. We need 59 million to get to 70%, and 32 million of those haven’t even received one dose of a vaccine. That means 91 million doses, which at this rate might take until Hallowe’en, if not Thanksgiving. (Note: Some versions of Biden’s pledge have it as “at least one dose by July 4,” which would still required at least three months at the current pace.)

The problem appears to be most significant in a part of the population Biden was supposed to be able to reach:

The Biden administration knew the key to a successful Covid vaccination campaign would be reaching the most vulnerable populations. But more than five months in, even a blueprint that’s worked with other ethnic and racial groups isn’t doing enough to win over Black Americans.

Less than a quarter of Black Americans had received their first Covid-19 shot as of June 3, amid a weekslong stagnation that has defied the government’s ramped-up effort to accelerate vaccinations and reach the nation’s most vulnerable communities.

The slowdown has put Black Americans behind the pace set over the past month by other racial and ethnic groups tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend line worries health officials and experts who say the immunization drive is running into a particularly complex web of distrust, outreach challenges and stubborn barriers to access.

This is particularly concerning as black Americans have more apparent vulnerability to COVID-19. There are lots of reasons for this resistance, not the least of which is previous encounters with medical researchers such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Beware of medical geeks bearing gift needles is a hard-earned lesson among black Americans. There are other concerns about distribution that might be preventing enough of these doses getting to this part of the population, however, although by now any such issues would long have been Biden’s problem and not that of the previous administration.

Clearly, we aren’t going to hit any of our targets without making better inroads among black Americans. But almost as clearly, the July 4 target has become essentially meaningless. States are reopening without it, and no one’s postponing get-togethers, especially those already vaccinated. With vaccines this plentiful, the burden of protecting the unvaccinated has shifted to the unvaccinated themselves. Those immune to the disease have already begun getting on with their lives, regardless of Joe Biden’s advice.