Biden touts new incentives in July 4 vaccination push


By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


President Joe Biden, facing a self-imposed July 4 deadline to have 70% of U.S. adults at least partly vaccinated against the coronavirus, tried earlier this week to rally the nation to meet that goal, announcing an offer of free child care for parents and caregivers while they receive their shots and a national canvassing effort resembling a get-out-the-vote drive.


Declaring June a “National Month of Action,” Biden appeared at the White House on Wednesday to implore Americans not only to get vaccinated, but also to help persuade their friends and neighbors to do so.


He laid out an aggressive campaign that will include incentives from sports leagues like free tickets to the Super Bowl and to Major League Baseball games, and from private companies. United Airlines is offering a year of free flights in a sweepstakes open only to vaccinated Americans, and Anheuser-Busch has promised free beer to adults on Independence Day if the nation meets the president’s goal.


“That’s right, get a shot and have a beer,” Biden declared. “Free beer for everyone 21 years and over to celebrate the independence from the virus.”


Television pundits wondered aloud if the beer offer amounted to a bribe. But for Biden, the 70% goal is serious business — both a public health objective that will drive down infection and death rates, as well as a bench mark by which Americans will judge his administration.


Currently, 62.8% of American adults have received at least one coronavirus shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 12 states have passed the 70% mark; California and Maryland are the latest to do so. But a number of states, particularly in the South, are far short of that goal.


If the pace of adult vaccination continues at its current seven-day average, the nation will come in just shy of Biden’s target, with roughly 68% of adults partly vaccinated by July 4, according to a New York Times analysis. Reaching all eligible Americans remains a daunting task; as vaccination rates rise, the pool of the most willing adults is shrinking.


“We knew it was going to get harder,” Dr. Vivek Murthy, Biden’s surgeon general, acknowledged in an interview on CNN after the president spoke. Asked if the 70% mark is attainable, Murthy hedged, saying that if Americans “do everything that we have laid out today,” the nation could “absolutely still hit that goal, but nothing is guaranteed.”


Rural and minority communities remain particularly difficult to reach; one element of Biden’s plan is a “Shots at the Shop” initiative that will engage Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons to give out educational materials and host on-site vaccination events with local health care providers.


At the same time, vast regional and socioeconomic disparities in vaccination rates have emerged, both among states and within them. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, recently noted on Twitter that in Newton, a wealthy suburb of Boston, 99% of adults over 30 have had at least one shot, compared with 68% of adults over 30 in the working-class city of Springfield.


The figures, he added, debunk the narrative that “if you’re a Trump voter, you don’t want the vaccine.” Nearly three-quarters of Springfield voters cast their ballots for Biden.


The White House push will take on the tone of a political campaign and a get-out-the-vote effort, with phone banking and text messages to people in areas with low vaccination rates. Beginning this weekend, Biden said, thousands of people will knock on doors and canvass in neighborhoods close to walk-in clinics where people can be vaccinated on the spot.


Biden also used his remarks to take a victory lap, appearing with Vice President Kamala Harris in front of a blue placard bearing the slogan “We Can Do This.” He boasted of an economic recovery proceeding at “the fastest pace in nearly four decades,” and implored Americans to get their shots, promising that vaccination would bring “freedom from fear” — an echo of the president after whom he is modeling himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt.


“America is headed to the summer dramatically different from last year’s summer — a summer of freedom, a summer of get-togethers and celebrations, an All-American summer that this country deserves after a long dark winter we’ve all endured,” he said, adding, “We need everyone across the country to pull together to get us over the finish line.”


The president announced several new initiatives. Four of the nation’s largest child care providers will offer free care to parents and caregivers while they get vaccinated. The National Association of Broadcasters will back a local radio and television advertising push, and a new “COVID-19 College Challenge” is aimed at vaccinating college and university students.


Demand for the vaccine is dropping. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that 351 federally supported vaccination sites had closed as of May 21, leaving a total of 1,619 nationwide. As of Wednesday, providers were administering about 1.1 million doses per day on average, about a 67% decrease from the peak of 3.38 million reported on April 13, according to CDC data.


Lack of child care remains a major barrier to vaccination, experts say. The CDC recently reported that vaccination coverage among adults was lower among those living in counties with lower socioeconomic status and with higher percentages of households with children, single parents, and people with disabilities.


White House officials said two of the four providers — KinderCare and Learning Care Group, which together have more than 2,500 sites around the country — will offer free, drop-in appointments to any parent or caregiver who needs support to get vaccinated or recover from vaccination.


The YMCA, with more than 500 sites nationwide, will offer drop-in care during vaccination appointments, the officials said. And Bright Horizons, which joins with more than 1,100 employers to provide child care, will also offer free care to support the vaccination of more than 10 million workers employed by the companies it serves.


“There is no question that both transportation and child care are real barriers for people,” Jha said. “The question that is unclear for me is whether offering free child care solves that problem” because parents might be unwilling to leave their children with caregivers they do not know.


To that end, the officials said, Biden will encourage states to use money from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress, to provide financial incentives or bonuses for smaller providers of community child care to stay open extra hours or otherwise help people get vaccinated.


As the rate of vaccinations in the United States has climbed, cases have plummeted.


But experts are warning Americans not to become complacent, and say that it is likely that infections will spike in certain regions like the South, where vaccination rates are low and the summer heat is driving people indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more efficiently.


Wednesday’s announcement comes on the heels of other White House efforts intended to encourage vaccination, including a pledge by Lyft and Uber last month to provide free rides. An Uber spokesman said Wednesday that 60,000 people had taken advantage of the offer since it began offering the service last Monday. A spokeswoman for Lyft said the company had given “tens of thousands of rides” under the program.


The administration has also created a webpage, vaccines.gov/incentives.html, where Americans can learn about incentives for vaccinated people. Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said there was some evidence from past flu vaccination campaigns that incentives were effective, but no one had tried as sweeping an effort as Biden proposed.


“We’ve gotten a lot of questions about incentives and what works,” he said. “The problem is that the evidence that we have isn’t really on the scale of what we are now able to do.”