WASHINGTON — The first time President Biden rolled up his sleeve on national television was December 2020. He had just been elected a few weeks earlier; the coronavirus vaccine was a scarce, sought-after item in much of the country.
He has since repeated the ritual several times, receiving his on-camera booster shots to encourage vaccine uptake.
And he did so again on Tuesday, when a member of the White House medical unit administered the bivalent booster intended to protect recipients against Omicron subvariants that now dominate the pandemic, as well as the original coronavirus strain.
Booster adoption is slow, with only 19.4 million people having received their bivalent booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden acknowledged that reality as he prepared for his own vaccination.
“It’s incredibly effective, but the truth is not enough people understand it,” he said in his prepared remarks, which he delivered while flanked by top public health officials in his administration, including Dr. Ashish Jha, White House pandemic response team coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, his top pandemic advisor, as well as the CEOs of several pharmacy chains.
“As a country, we have to make a choice,” Biden said, referring to the coming months when colder weather will drive people in and there will be a lot of travel and large gatherings during the holiday season.
Later in the day, Jha made the same point. “We know that winter is a time when viruses like COVID spread more easily,” he said at a White House press briefing, also talking about the possibility of a tridemic: that is, the threat of COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial. virus, or RSV, spreading rampant all at once.
Jha added that with a concerted vaccination effort, “this winter could look very different from last winter or the winter before.”
Last year, the Omicron variety arrived in the United States right after Thanksgiving, causing disruption for much of the winter. Since then it has continued to splinter into sub-variants. While the bivalent booster (so-called because it protects against both the original strain of the coronavirus and the Omicron variant) cannot be updated to counter every new variant, the Biden administration believes that as long as COVID-19 continues to evolve along the Omicron line, the booster will prove effective, with one injection per year enough to keep people up to date on their coronavirus immunizations.
“If if you get it, you’re protected,” the president said Tuesday.
There was a hint of annoyance in his voice. Although he declared the pandemic last month, that amounted to little more than a rhetorical flourish, one that many public health experts have criticized as premature. Even as life in the United States has almost returned to normal, about 350 people still die every day across the country.
“Virtually every COVID death in America is preventable — pretty much everyone,” Biden said, referring to the widespread availability of Paxlovid, a pill that is highly effective in treating severe COVID-19. more than mild symptoms.
The question for Biden and public health officials is how to draw public attention to a pandemic that many have relegated to the past — and how to prevent the nation from relapsing in the coming months.
“We have made the vaccines free and available. We’ve made the tests free and available. We’ve made Paxlovid free and available. Please use them,” Biden implored the American public. “Use them.”