Joe Biden’s coronavirus goals and timelines have shifted higher and lower

WASHINGTON – When can most people get a COVID-19 vaccine? Do teachers need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen? When will life go back to normal?

Those are some of the basic questions that the White House has sometimes struggled to answer as President Joe Biden tackles the biggest issue of his presidency: ending the pandemic and getting the economy and daily life back on track.

Biden has pledged not only to address the challenges more intelligently and capably than his predecessor, but also to admit when things go wrong.

“I will not walk away when we make a mistake,” Biden reiterated during a visit to the National Institutes of Health this month. “I’ll acknowledge it and tell you the truth.”

Still, both communication missteps and the difficulty of making predictions for an evolving situation have led to confusion on some goals and timelines, and underscores the challenge of managing a massive vaccination campaign and a pandemic that has upended American life and killed more than 490,000 people in the U.S. Biden has also been accused of setting the bar too low in some areas to make it easier to claim victory.

Here’s a look at the goals and timelines.

100 million vaccine shots in the first 100 days

On Dec. 8, Biden pledged to get 100 million vaccine shots into the arms of Americans in his first 100 days, a goal many considered lofty given the patchwork federal response he inherited and that no vaccine had been authorized for use at the time.

The 100-day goal meant the Biden administration needed to administer 1 million doses a day compared to the roughly 16.5 million Americans who were inoculated by the time Biden became president on Jan. 20. The U.S. fell short of the target set by the Trump administration to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This will be one of the most challenging operation efforts we’ve ever undertaken as a nation,” Biden said during a January speech introducing his $1.9 million COVID-19 relief package. “We’ll have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated, to create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams to get shots in peoples’ arms.”

By the time Biden took office on Jan. 20, much had changed because of the emergency approval of the two coronavirus vaccines in mid-December.

The quick pace of vaccinations during January led health experts to question whether the 100 million goal was too low. CDC data showed the country had already surpassed that pace by late January. Just five days into office, the president set his sights higher, saying the government could administer up to 150 million shots in the first 100 days before White House health officials walked back his comments.

Andy Slavitt, Biden’s senior adviser for COVID-19 response, called the 100 million goal “a floor, not a ceiling.”

Biden is now set to blow past his 100 million shots goal and has said the U.S. is on track to have enough vaccine shots available to inoculate every American by July. Last week, the U.S. administered a seven-day average of 1.7 million doses a day, up from less than a million doses a day in mid-January. The White House announced Tuesday that number is increasing to more than 1.9 million this week.

When will most people be eligible for a vaccine?

As the Biden administration continues to ramp up vaccine distribution, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, suggested last week that most Americans could become eligible for a vaccine shot as soon as April.

“By the time we get to April, that will be what I would call, for better wording, ‘open season,’ namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated,” he told Savannah Gutherie of NBC’s “Today.”

Vaccines have so far been limited to essential workers, Americans age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions.

His optimistic tone echoed comments he made to NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this month, in which he said “things are going to get better as we get from February into March, into April.”

The infectious disease expert pointed to an uptick in the number of vaccine doses that would be available this spring, thanks in part to the expected emergency authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

But Fauci has since offered a more cautious forecast, noting that the administration was expecting fewer initial doses from Johnson & Johnson, which still has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use.

“It may take until June, July and August to finally getting everybody vaccinated,” he told CNN Tuesday. “So when you hear about how long it’s going to take to get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, I don’t think anybody disagrees that that’s going to be well to the end of the summer and we get into the early fall.”

Fauci said demand for the drugs still far outweighs the supply, which has led some vaccination sites across the country to temporarily close or cancel appointments due to the shortages of doses. Severe winter weather across the country has also caused delays in distributing vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Biden appeared to push that target in a CNN town hall Tuesday night, telling audience members that every American who wants a coronavirus vaccine will have access to one by the end of July.

Pressed by reporters about the shifting timeline, Psaki on Wednesday pointed to the announcement that the federal government would be purchasing enough doses to inoculate 300 million Americans with the two-dose regimen of the authorized vaccines.

Psaki said the federal government expects to receive the last shipment of those doses at the end of July but that a “larger swath of people” will be eligible for a vaccine in May, when the administration estimates it will have about 400 million doses.

When will most people be vaccinated?

Though the White House has said a vaccine will be available to most Americans by July, the Biden administration’s estimate on when most people will be vaccinated is less clear.

Health experts have told USA TODAY that the rate of vaccinations needs to double over the next month, from nearly 1.5 million shots a day to close to 3 million, in order for most Americans to be vaccinated by mid-summer.

The administration has said it is taking steps to speed up the vaccinate rate, including invoking the Defense Production Act, a wartime authority allowing Biden to accelerate commercial production of vaccine doses and supplies, as well as deploying military personnel to facilitate mass-vaccination sites across the country.

Concerns over new, contagious variants of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, have brought new urgency to getting more Americans vaccinated sooner as the administration works to get the pandemic under control.

Aside from managing logistical hurdles and supply shortages, the White House has also acknowledged that part of its sweeping campaign to vaccinate most of the country is to encourage some Americans who may be reluctant to get the shot.

A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 43% of Black Americans and 37% of Hispanic adults said they want to “wait and see” how the vaccine works for others before getting a shot themselves.

Rally to open schools on Feb. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Opening schools

When he announced a reopening goal in December, Biden said he aimed to ensure “a majority of our schools” are open within 100 days.

But in Biden’s plan to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, released on his first full day in office, the White House lowered its marker, saying the goal applies only to “a majo rity of K-8 schools,” not high schools.

Last week, Psaki defined the K-8 goal as more than 50% of schools having “some teaching” in person “at least one day a week.”

Although Psaki called that a minimum, the target was criticized as too low. That’s in part because, by some measures, it has already been met.

During a town hall Tuesday, Biden denied that a school can meet his definition of being open with only one day of in-classroom instruction a week.

“There was a mistake in the communication,” he said.

Biden said the goal is to have in-person teaching five days a week.

“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” he said. “We’ve had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened. My guess is they’re going to probably be pushing to open for all summer, to continue like it’s a different semester.”

Psaki declined on Wednesday to give a target for high schools, where there are higher rates of transmission.

“I’m not going to set new goals here, other than to say that the president wants students to be in school, learning, with their teachers, five days a week,” she said, “and he wants that to happen as quickly as possible and do it safely.”

From the outset Biden has said achieving the goal depends on funding, which he hopes to get through passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that’s pending in Congress. It sets aside $130 billion for school reopenings.

Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a mask and face shield, helps a first grader during reading class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Conn. Most students at Stamford Public Schools are taking part in a hybrid education model, where they attend in-school classes every other day and distance learn the rest. About 20 percent of students in the school district, however, are enrolled in the distance learning option due to coronavirus concerns.

Vaccinating teachers

The confusion about teacher vaccinations began after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in early February that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”

Psaki walked that back the next day. She said the White House was waiting for the CDC to finish its guidance for schools. Psaki also said Walensky had spoken “in her personal capacity,” and not as head of the CDC, even though her comments were made during a White House briefing from health officials.

Republicans jumped on the qualification, accusing the administration of bowing to teachers’ unions instead of siding with parents and students.

When the CDC’s guidelines were released last week, the agency said vaccinating teachers is important but isn’t a must for in-person instruction.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday said the CDC recommendations “are exactly that, recommendations.”

Biden and Harris have emphasized that vaccinating teachers should be a priority for states, which are making the decisions on who should be first in line for vaccines until they are widely available.

“I think that we should be vaccinating teachers,” Biden said at the CNN town hall. “We should move them up in the hierarchy.”

Biden added that he can’t tell a state: “You must move such-and-such a group of people up.”

Heritage Middle School choir teacher Samantha Speakmon (center) gets her first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine from Licking County Health Department public health nurse Brittany Goldsberry (right) with her son Jacob nearby during a vaccination clinic for school district faculty and staff in Ohio on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Speakmon looked forward to the protection vaccination offered and not having to worry about the risks of coronavirus as much.

Psaki said Wednesday that about half of states have prioritized teachers in their vaccination rollouts.

“It’s not a requirement to reopen schools, but (Biden and Harris) believe that teachers should be prioritized,” Psaki said. “That’s something that he will continue to communicate at every opportunity.”

Fauci agreed Wednesday on prioritizing teachers. But he was much blunter about not making that a requirement.

“If you are going to say that every single teacher needs to be vaccinated before you get back to school, I believe quite frankly that’s a non-workable situation,” Fauci said on “CBS This Morning.”

Return to normalcy

Biden knew to be cautious when asked at his town hall meeting the underlying question people want to know: When will things go back to normal?

“I don’t want to overpromise anything here,” Biden said. He noted that the experts, including Fauci, have warned him to be careful about predictions “because then you’ll be held accountable.”

With that caveat, Biden said he thinks that by Christmas, “we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today.”

Students wear masks as they work in a fourth-grade classroom, Feb. 2, 2021, at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. The school has had some students in classrooms for in-person learning since September of 2020, but other students who attend the school are still learning remotely.

“I think that there’ll be significantly fewer people having to be social distanced, have to wear masks etc.,” he said. “But we don’t know.”

Fauci has said that about 70% to 85% of the population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, which would allow the nation to approach “a rather considerable degree of normality.”

That level of vaccination could happen by the end of summer or the beginning of fall, he said. But it depends in part on how willing people are to get vaccinated. It also depends on whether mutations of the virus become dominant, reducing the efficacy of the vaccinations.

“It’s never going to be completely back to normal,” Fauci said at a recent news briefing. “There’s still going to be likely a requirement under certain circumstances to wear masks.”

Contributing: Joey Garrison, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY.

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