Millions of Americans have their lives and livelihoods back and are basking in a summer of freedom. But a divided nation’s varied faith in vaccines and a more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus are thwarting hopes of a full declaration of independence from the pandemic.
President Joe Biden long ago named the Fourth of July as the moment when citizens would escape the clutches of the virus – if the country united in one last huge effort to follow health guidelines and embraced the vaccine rollout.
Biden fell short of his target of 70% of American adults getting at least one dose of vaccine by the holiday. In a briefing this week, Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said that more than 180 million Americans – and 67% of adults – had received at least one shot.
There are fears that the disease hasn’t been sufficiently suppressed to avoid new spikes of infections this summer or when the weather turns cold. Still, it is indisputable that the country is in far better shape than this time last year – or even six months ago.
Cities are buzzing and the sudden bounce back in demand from travelers and diners has stunned a sector that was not prepared to handle the influx as labor shortages persist. Even the cruise industry, the early symbol of the threat as ships full of voyagers fell sick, is getting ready to slip its moorings.
New Covid-19 cases are averaging around 12,600 a day, far lower than the 250,000-level recorded in the painful days of winter. Deaths are also lower than they were. But despite the vastly improved picture, an average of 257 Americans are dying every single day, according to the seven-day average tracked this week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though the nation will miss the vaccination benchmark Biden set out months ago, the President touted the success of his administration’s response Friday – which is a sharp contrast from former President Donald Trump’s months-long neglect of the pandemic as he concentrated on disputing a fair election at the end of his term. The Trump administration does deserve credit, however, for overseeing speedy development of the vaccines that the Biden administration has rolled out.
Just in time for a patriotic holiday celebration, Biden heralded new government statistics that showed the US economy added 850,000 jobs in June, marking the strongest month for job gains since August 2020. The data outpaced analysts’ expectations and delivered a boost to both the economy and the President after several sets of monthly employment figures gave Republicans ammunition to argue his big-spending pandemic rescue plan was actually hobbling job growth.
The President hailed “historic progress pulling our economy out of the worst crisis in 100 years,” and he said the economic growth was “driven in part by our dramatic progress in vaccinating our nation and beating back the pandemic.”
“Yes, we have more work to do to get America vaccinated and everyone back to work,” Biden said, alluding to the 5.9% unemployment rate. “We are aiming for full employment, and that means keeping our pace on job growth, including for Black, Hispanic and Asian workers. But this progress is testament to our commitment to grow this economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”
But for all of Biden’s optimism about a full recovery from the pandemic, there will be two very different July Fourth realities in this deeply polarized nation this weekend.
Fireworks, family visits and parties are safe for those who are fully vaccinated and can safely gather, according to public health officials. But there is a zone of high risk for the unvaccinated in vast swaths of the heartland, where mass events remain a danger. The two realities reflect the still-polarized nature of the pandemic – and the fact that some of the most vulnerable have ignored public health guidance for cultural and political reasons.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has cited his frustration about the growing gulf between what he has said could develop into “two Americas” – one where vaccination rates are high and the other where as few as 35% of the people are vaccinated. “You clearly have a high risk of seeing spikes in those selected areas,” Fauci told CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday night.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, worries about “two Covid nations.” He has argued that states where high percentages of the population are vaccinated – like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – may be able to withstand the Delta variant. But in other places, like southern Missouri, he said in an interview on CNN’s “Newsroom” Wednesday, where a small percentage of the population is vaccinated and the Delta variant is raging, “a lot of people are now going into intensive care units.”
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