WASHINGTON -- Seeking to overcome vaccination hesitancy, the Biden administration Thursday stepped up its outreach efforts to skeptical Americans, setting up a coalition of community, religious and celebrity partners to promote covid-19 shots in hard-hit communities.
The "We Can Do This" campaign features television and social media ads, but it also relies on a community corps of public health, athletic, faith and other groups to spread the word about the safety and efficacy of the three approved shots. The campaign debuts as worries arise that reluctance to get vaccinated will delay the nation's recovery from the pandemic -- and is kicking off as the U.S. is anticipating a boost in vaccine supply that will make all adult Americans eligible by the beginning of May.
The U.S. is racing against an uptick in cases that is fueling fears of another nationwide surge, while the White House is pushing to achieve the president's goal of returning the country to some normalcy by July Fourth.
President Joe Biden on Thursday encouraged more than 1,000 faith leaders to continue their efforts to promote vaccinations in their communities. "They're going to listen to your words more than they are to me as president of the United States," he said.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy held a virtual meeting with the more than 275 inaugural members of the community corps to kick off the effort.
"You are the people that folks on the ground know and rely on and have a history with," Harris said. "And when people are then making the decision to get vaccinated, they're going to look to you."
A White House official said Harris plans to take on a larger role in promoting the uptake of vaccines, in addition to her efforts selling the president's $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief bill and working to address the root causes of migration.
The focus on trusted validators stems from both internal and public surveys showing those skeptical of the vaccines are most likely to be swayed by local, community and medical encouragement rather than messages from politicians.
"Yesterday, I actually convened a group of faith leaders from around the country and they were very clear," Harris said. "They said, look, sometimes people just need basic information, you know?" she said. "You're asking people to take a shot in the arm, they need to know what's going on. They need to know things like, what's in the vaccine? How does it work?"
Courtney Rowe, the White House's covid-19 director of strategic communications and engagement, briefed governors on the new initiative Tuesday, telling them that people "want to hear from those they know and trust." She said the initiative would be "empowering the leaders people want to hear from."
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted late last month finds that three-quarters of American adults now say they have or will get a vaccine, compared with 13% who say they probably will not, while 12% say they definitely will not. The share saying they probably or definitely will not has ticked down since January, when a combined 32% said that.
"Data show a very large 'movable middle,'" said John Bridgeland, founder and CEO of the COVID Collaborative, a bipartisan group of political and scientific leaders working with the Ad Council on vaccine education.
"Even though there is vaccine hesitancy among many subgroups within the population, and we are tracking this very closely, our numbers show we could reach herd immunity, so getting facts and information into the hands of millions of Americans is the job before us," Bridgeland said.
"I've got some pockets where they cite religious reasons with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine," said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, who has been telling the White House what she hears from her group's members. "There are a lot of pockets where people have already had covid and a sense of, 'Well, we've all already gotten it, so we're not really pressed.'"
The coalition includes health groups such as the American Medical Association and the National Council of Urban Indian Health, sports leagues like the NFL, NASCAR and MLB, rural groups, unions and Hispanic, Black, Asian American Pacific Islander and American Indian organizations, as well as coalitions of faith, business and veterans leaders.
The community corps will receive fact sheets and social media messages to share with members of their communities, as well as regular updates from the administration with the latest vaccine confidence resources.
The White House is also deploying Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who chairs Biden's covid-19 equity task force, to speak directly to the public about the benefits of the vaccines. On Wednesday, the pair conducted an interview with rapper and actor LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
By the end of May, the U.S. will have enough vaccine to cover all adults in the country. Fauci has estimated that 70% to 85% of the population needs to be immune to the virus to reach herd immunity.
McCONNELL STEPS UP
During a visit to a Kentucky hospital Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his fellow Republicans to get vaccinated.
"As a Republican man, I wasn't reluctant to get it when I was eligible, and I would encourage everybody to do that," he said. "The sooner we can get to 75%, to herd immunity, and get our economy up and open, the better."
Flanked by Owensboro Health Regional Hospital administrators, McConnell also discussed covid-19 relief and the state's vaccine distribution.
While the supply of vaccines has increased significantly since the end of last year, some public health experts have expressed concern that some Americans may be less likely to sign up for a shot because of their political beliefs.
In stops across Kentucky this week, McConnell has been encouraging the Republican-leaning state's residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
"There may be some segments of our population that still have some reservations about this for one reason or another," he said. "But what I heard from these health care professionals behind me is there's no real good reason not to get the vaccination."
Kentucky will open up vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older starting Monday. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has said that while demand in some parts of the state remains high, appointment slots in others continue to go unfilled.
NEW SURGE FEARED
Another nationwide surge is feared just as the Major League Baseball season starts and thousands of fans return to stadiums.
More than 99 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 56 million people -- 17% of the nation's population -- have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A total of 154 million vaccine doses had been administered as of Thursday. Biden's new goal is to give 200 million doses during his first 100 days in office.
But coronavirus infections are rising again. The country is averaging 64,000 cases per day this week, up from a daily average of 55,000 two weeks ago. Deaths have been averaging about 900 a day.
Officials have warned that they could ban fans from ballparks if the numbers continue rising. Even before the baseball season got underway Thursday, an opening game was postponed after a player tested positive.
At American Family Field in Milwaukee, Tonia Smith said she didn't have any concerns about returning to the stadium where the Brewers were facing off against the Minnesota Twins. The stadium limited attendance to about 16,000 fans.
"It was hard to judge how quickly to get here. It's a different opening-day experience. But just having those smells hit you, walking in and having that experience back, it's invigorating," said Smith, 45, of Sussex, Wis.
In Chicago, officials warned they will stop letting fans into the Cubs' Wrigley Field and across town at Guaranteed Rate Field of the White Sox, as well as viewing spots at bars and restaurants, if covid-19 cases keeps climbing.
The warning was included in a news release issued by the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications on Wednesday, a day before opening day for the Cubs. Both ballparks will be limited to 25% capacity as they open up to fans for the first time since 2019.
Meanwhile, states are doubling their efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible by expanding eligibility and touting the vaccines as essential to getting the country back to normal.
As of Thursday, anyone 50 or older is eligible in California.
In Michigan, which has the country's highest infection rate over the past week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer doubled the state's daily vaccination goal to 100,000 as the state faces a third surge. Michigan's allotment of doses will total about 620,000 next week, a record.
"It is now even more important that Michiganders continue to do what works to slow the spread of the virus," the governor said in a statement, citing wearing masks, keeping social distance, avoiding crowds, washing hands and getting a shot.
While some states are struggling to meet vaccine demand, others report that a significant portion of their populations remain hesitant.
In Iowa, about a third of the state's adult population, roughly 800,000 people, will not commit to getting a shot, which prompted Gov. Kim Reynolds to plead with them to consider it for everyone's sake.
Iowa's virus activity has increased in recent weeks specifically among spring break travelers 18 to 29.
The state is expected to get nearly 161,000 vaccine doses next week, the largest weekly supply so far, Reynolds said. That will enable the state to open appointments broadly to all adults beginning Monday, although a few counties have already done so.
Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine remained highly effective after six months, according to new long-term results from the company.
Follow-up data from a final-stage trial of 46,307 people showed the vaccine was 91.3% effective in preventing symptomatic cases starting a week after the second dose through as long as six months. In the U.S. alone, the efficacy rate was 92.6%, according to a report Thursday by Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech SE.
The companies also provided some of the first data on how their vaccine might handle the immune-evading B.1.351 variant that arose in South Africa. Nine of 800 trial participants in that country got sick with covid, including six infected with B.1.351. However, all were in the placebo group, suggesting the shot retains efficacy against the variant.
Pfizer will soon share the data with regulators around the world and submit it for publication in a scientific journal, Pfizer spokeswoman Amy Rose said.
The six-month result is only slightly lower than the 95% efficacy rate that was originally found for the vaccine, based on much-shorter-term results. The two-shot vaccine also prevented all or nearly all severe cases of the disease over six months, depending on the exact definition used.
The companies said no new serious safety concerns were identified.
2 TESTS AUTHORIZED
U.S. health officials have authorized two more over-the-counter covid-19 tests that can be used at home to get rapid results.
The move by the Food and Drug Administration is expected to vastly expand the availability of cheap home tests that many experts have advocated since the early days of the outbreak. The announcement late Wednesday comes as U.S. testing numbers continue to slide, even as the number of new infections is rising again.
The FDA said Abbott's BinaxNow and Quidel's QuickVue tests can now be sold without a prescription. Both tests won OKs last year but they came with conditions that limited their use, including prescription requirements and instructions that they be used only for people with symptoms.
The home tests allow users to collect a sample themselves with a nasal swab that is then inserted into a test strip. Results are usually available in 10 to 20 minutes. Most other tests require a swab sample taken by a health worker at a testing location.
Abbott said its test would be priced in the "single digits" and should be available in "coming weeks" at pharmacies, supermarkets and other chains. The company can produce about 50 million tests per month. Quidel did not disclose pricing for its test.
Both companies said they would sell their tests in two-packs. Repeat testing is important to reduce chances of false results. Both tests can be used to test children 2 and older.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Emily Swanson, Piper Hudspeth Blackburn, Olga R. Rodriguez, Steve Megargee and Matthew Perrone of The Associated Press; by Annie Karni of The New York Times; by Dan Diamond of The Washington Post; and by Robert Langreth of Bloomberg News (TNS).