President Biden directed states Thursday to make all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine no later than May 1 and targeted Independence Day as the entry point to normalcy, saying he wants to see Americans hold cookouts and other small gatherings after a nightmarish year.
“America is coming back,” the president said from the East Room of the White House.
Betting the U.S. will rebound from one of its “darkest” periods, Mr. Biden said increased production of three vaccines will allow governors who’ve tightly controlled eligibility to fling open the gates within six weeks. It is possible states would have reached that point, anyway, but the president used his first primetime address to declare it won’t be optional.
“That’s much earlier than expected,” Mr. Biden said. “That doesn’t mean everyone will have that shot immediately but it means you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1.”
The president also boasted the U.S. will beat his modest goal of 100 million shots in 100 days by his 60th day in office, citing a daily pace of vaccinations that exceeds 2 million per day.
“No other country in the world has done this, none,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden spoke hours after signing a $1.9 trillion relief bill that includes money for coronavirus testing and vaccine programs but primarily expands or extends government benefits.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Mr. Biden said at Thursday’s White House signing event.
Mr. Biden’s evening address marked the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s decision to label the coronavirus crisis a global pandemic.
Also on March 11, 2020, then-President Trump announced a stunning ban on travel from most of Europe, the NBA suspended play after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive, and actor Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson confirmed they’d been infected.
“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease scientist, told Congress that fateful day.
Several days later, Mr. Trump asked Americans to work and learn from home to defeat the virus.
Once thought to be a six-week ordeal, Americans have added “social distancing” to their vocabulary and tracked the death toll and “rolling average” of daily infections for a full year.
States used a patchwork of mask rules and business restrictions to try to stem the virus but struggled with striking the right balance between public health, social well-being and economic realities during a tumultuous campaign year.
The U.S. death toll reached 530,000 and is still climbing, though hospitalizations and mortality are falling as states prioritize the elderly and medically frail for vaccination.
Mr. Biden has said the U.S. will have enough doses for every adult by the end of May, and he told Americans late Thursday to continue to wear masks while the rollout continues deeper into the spring, warning states will reimpose restrictions if the virus surges again.
Hoping to speed the campaign, the White House said an additional 700 community health centers will provide vaccines over the next six weeks, bringing the total to 950, and the government will double the number of sites in its federal retail program to 20,000 pharmacies.
One-quarter of U.S. adults have received the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson or an initial dose of the two-shot vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Mr. Biden did not mention Mr. Trump, who oversaw the vaccines’ development last year, though said the virus was “met with silence and spread unchecked” last spring.
Speaking for roughly a half-hour, Mr. Biden credited essential workers who risked their lives through the last year and pulled a card from his pocket to cite the tally of people who died, often alone in a hospital bed. He chastised those who’ve refused to wear a mask and those who’ve scapegoated Asian Americans over the virus from China while highlighting the first dates, family reunions and Sunday rituals people missed last year.
“It’s the details of life that matter the most. And we miss those details,” he said. “All the things that needed to happen but didn’t.”
Mr. Biden balanced his to-do list and reflection on those lost with a heavy dose of optimism — something that’s been in short supply over the past year.
Mr. Biden said there is a “good chance” the U.S. will be able to hold “truly special” July 4 festivities that mark their “independence” from the virus.
“That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden also said reopening schools will be his education secretary’s “number-one priority.” The White House says the new relief bill deliver $650 million to test teachers, students and staff in the coming weeks and months.
The unprecedented package delivers out $1,400 checks to many Americans, supercharges unemployment benefits and extends $350 billion in aid to state and local governments. It also lays the groundwork for a permanent expansion of the federal welfare state through an expanded child tax credit and super-sized Obamacare subsidies.
Mr. Biden said the package will give working-class people “a fighting chance” and is overwhelmingly popular with Americans.
“Their voices were heard,” he said at the signing ceremony.
The president and Vice President Kamala D. Harris will travel to Georgia on Friday to promote the benefits of the legislation. Georgia’s Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won runoff elections in January, giving control of the Senate to Democrats and making possible the passage of the relief bill without Republican support.
Republicans charged that the package isn’t targeted enough to those who need help, puts the nation deeper in debt and is filled with partisan priorities such as an $86 billion bailout of multi-employer pension plans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the legislation as a partisan turn after Democrats and Republicans linked arms during last year’s despair.
“2021 is set to be a historic comeback year. Not because of far-left legislation that was passed after the tide had already turned,” the Kentucky Republican said. “But because of the resilience of the American people.”
The numbers are looking better, even if transmission remains high.
The U.S. is seeing an average of 57,000 daily cases instead of the 250,000 or so at the start of the year, while hospitalizations have declined every day since the first week of January.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said even as the U.S. recovers, it needs to reflect on its failings.
“We now clearly see what we should have addressed before — the long-standing inequities that prevent us from achieving optimal health for all. We see the impact of years of neglect of our public health infrastructure. We see the critical need for data that move faster than disease, to prevent rather than react,” she said. “To move past this pandemic, we must resolutely face these challenges head-on and fully embrace the innovations, the new partnerships, and the resilience of our communities that have emerged from this crisis. It is the only way we can turn tragedy and sorrow into lasting progress and improved health for all.”
⦁ Dave Boyer and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.