The Biden administration is spreading the message far and wide this holiday weekend that the United States is getting back to normal after a grueling 16 months from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
President Biden , Vice President Harris and other top officials are fanning out across the country for the Fourth of July for what the White House has dubbed the "America is Back Together" tour. The travel, paired with a large celebration at the White House on Sunday for first responders and military families, amounts to a victory lap for the administration as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to tick down
But experts warned the White House must be careful not to be seen declaring victory over the virus at a time when the more contagious and potentially deadly delta variant is circulating and less vaccinated pockets of the country have seen setbacks.
“It is still very important to get more people vaccinated to prevent surges related to the Delta variant and other future variants and I am concerned that a celebration of ‘independence from the virus’ sends the wrong message to people who are not yet vaccinated,” said Eric Toner, a senior scientist with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “We should not be seeming to be declaring ‘mission accomplished’ at this point.”
Biden administration officials will attend community roundtable events, baseball games, parades, festivals and barbecues across the country this weekend, making stops in Colorado, Virginia, Oklahoma, New Mexico, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire and Puerto Rico, a White House official said.
Biden will hold an event in Traverse City, Mich., on Saturday, and Harris will travel to Las Vegas to celebrate the progress against the virus. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff visited a national park in Utah on Friday, while first lady Jill Biden is slated on Saturday to visit a local park in Maine, meet with National Guard members in New Hampshire and attend a local barbecue in the Granite State.
The celebrations will culminate with a White House event on Sunday where hundreds of military members, first responders and their families will congregate on the South Lawn for the biggest in-person event of Biden’s presidency.
Taken together, the Independence Day events are intended as a declaration from the White House that it is safe for Americans to resume gathering in person and getting back to normal life as the U.S. sees case counts and death rates from the coronavirus dip to levels not seen since the early weeks of the outbreak.
“The work to vaccinate America and bring us to this moment has been monumental, and the President, Vice President, First Lady, and Second Gentleman, along with members of the Cabinet, will be fanning out across the country to celebrate our progress in fighting this pandemic and getting our country back to normal,” a White House official said.
Just as the White House intends to trumpet its work to defeat the pandemic, the U.S. is facing new challenges that threaten to undermine that progress. The delta variant accounts for roughly 25 percent of cases in the U.S., and public health officials have warned that the more contagious strain could pose risks even for young, healthy individuals who are not vaccinated.
The White House is planning to deploy “surge teams” to communities with low vaccination rates specifically to help combat the spread of the delta variant in those areas. The teams will work with local public health authorities to conduct contact tracing, and will distribute supplies as needed or requested by states, such as therapeutics and additional tests.
The country has also run into a wall with its vaccination efforts, failing to hit Biden’s goal of 70 percent of adults with at least one dose by the Fourth of July.
St. Louis and Los Angeles are among the locales that have issued new guidance encouraging even vaccinated individuals to wear masks in certain settings to prevent new clusters.
“You can still celebrate at the same time as you get your message very, very clear,” Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, said Thursday. “And the message for the situation in Washington is the same. … That is: If you are vaccinated, you have a high degree of protection. If you are not, you should wear a mask and you should think very seriously about getting vaccinated.”
Public health experts believe the White House’s weekend events will be safe given most will be outdoors and the vast majority of attendees will be vaccinated. But they expressed reservations about sending the message that Americans can let their guard down at a time when other nations are seeing the consequences of doing just that.
Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, pointed to the United Kingdom and Israel, where vaccination rates have outstripped most of the developed world, but where the delta variant has contributed to new outbreaks of the virus.
Israel on Thursday reported 307 new coronavirus cases and officials warned that figure was likely to increase. Israel lifted nearly all virus restrictions in recent weeks after 85 percent of its adult population received a vaccine.
Gostin noted the U.S. has used mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer that have shown strong protection against the delta variant, but he cautioned against repeating the mistakes of other governments by rushing back to normal.
“I think the singular mistake the United States has made over and over again in this pandemic is seeing explosions of the virus elsewhere and thinking that it won’t happen here,” Gostin said.
“The delta variant is something that’s quite serious,” he added. “Unvaccinated people are going to get sick and die because of it, and the tone that’s being set [by the White House] will be heard not just by people who are vaccinated but by the whole nation.”