With his speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, President Joe Biden missed his biggest opportunity to reduce vaccine hesitancy.
The problem wasn’t the content of his speech. It was the setting.
The 200 attendees entered the 1,600-person-capacity House chamber spaced apart and wearing masks. Some appeared to be double-masked. They were asked not to make physical contact, though some still fist-bumped or shook hands. There were markers indicating which seats could be occupied, with numerous empty spaces in between.
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was six months ago, before Americans had access to safe, effective vaccines.
But we’re in a totally different place now. Thanks to the work of scientists around the world, there are vaccines that are extraordinarily effective in preventing severe illness and reducing the spread of the virus. Thanks to the Biden administration’s leadership, every American 16 and older can sign up to receive one of these incredible vaccines.
How incredible are they? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report, there were only 7,157 breakthrough infections among 87 million fully vaccinated people—a rate of 0.008 percent.
I can understand the need for caution with our nation’s top lawmakers. Many are older and could be at high risk for severe disease if they contract covid-19. But with a breakthrough rate of 0.008 percent, there is most likely no one who has coronavirus in a room of 1,600 vaccinated people.
Surely those are odds our leaders should be willing to take on to demonstrate the benefit of vaccination to Americans.
Perhaps Biden wanted to differentiate himself from his predecessor. To be sure, it was horrific to see President Donald Trump’s many maskless, packed super-spreader events in the midst of the worst of the coronavirus surge.
But the message coming from Biden isn’t right, either. Over-correction has a price; at best, it makes public health measures seem performative rather than science-based. At worst, it calls vaccine efficacy into question.
The CDC needs to urgently change its recommendations to clearly distinguish between events in which anyone can attend and events that allow only those fully vaccinated. Proof of vaccination would allow concerts, theaters and virtually all businesses back at full capacity.
Maybe Biden didn’t want to wade into the ongoing debate about the so-called vaccine passport, though this would have been the perfect opportunity to point out that verification of vaccination is not some kind of national ID but actually an extension of a health screen. The Trump administration required testing as a condition of entry to some events; vaccination proof is not so different, except it works to cut coronavirus risk far better.
Imagine if Wednesday’s joint session had required that all attendees be fully vaccinated. Those who were not vaccinated were not welcome. But those permitted in could walk into the room, take off their mask, sit next to one another, and listen to a presidential address—just as they did in 2019.
The science shows that could have been done. It would have sent an unequivocal message that vaccines are safe, effective and the key to ending the pandemic. Instead, the American people got a different message, one that could impede the nation’s vaccine progress at a time when we can least afford it.
Leana S. Wen, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Previously she served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.