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As Demand Slows, The Biden Administration Will Miss Its Vaccination Goal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two months ago, President Biden announced a new COVID vaccination goal.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our goal, by July 4, is to have 70% of adult Americans with at least one shot and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated.

INSKEEP: The White House now concedes it's going to be a little late in reaching that mark. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith asked what comes next.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Biden has had a habit of underpromising and overdelivering on vaccinations. A hundred million shots in 100 days became 200 million, and it was achieved, too. And at the time Biden announced his 70% goal, the pace of vaccinations was slowing, but still strong.

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BIDEN: If we succeed in this effort, as we did with the last, then Americans will have taken a serious step towards a return to normal. That's July 4.

KEITH: In the two months since, nationwide COVID cases and deaths have fallen. Mask mandates have, too. And so White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is emphasizing a July 4 goal that has been achieved.

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JEN PSAKI: Part of our objective was to return the country to normal, for people to enjoy backyard barbecues, which people across the country - millions of people will be. And we'll have 1,000 people on the South Lawn here at the White House.

KEITH: Vaccine demand has been on the decline since mid-April, with vaccination rates particularly low in the South and the middle of the country. Jeff Tindle, CEO of Carroll County Memorial Hospital in Missouri, wishes there wasn't so much focus on that 70% number.

JEFF TINDLE: It may represent Seattle. It may represent New York. It may represent a few - it doesn't represent the country. And so what good does it do us to proselytize we're almost at 70% before July 4 when it really means nothing.

KEITH: Tindle sees hotspots in neighboring counties and worries. He figures 40% of his hospital's employees and 60% of the people in surrounding communities still are not vaccinated. He's told his staff to prepare for another surge just in case. Meanwhile, he's got 130 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine left over from a mass vaccination clinic in March, and he can't give them away.

TINDLE: Very little interest, very little interest.

KEITH: There's just no demand - and a lot of misinformation.

TINDLE: I don't know what it's going to take. I mean, 600,000 people dying apparently didn't scare enough people.

KEITH: Joanie Perkins is an administrator at North Sunflower Medical Center in rural Mississippi. They're offering COVID shots day and night, but there aren't a lot of takers anymore. So they've made asking about vaccination status a vital sign, along with blood pressure and temperature.

JOANIE PERKINS: If they're here for a splinter in their finger, you have every opportunity to talk to that patient about that vaccine, all along the line of intake and triage and, you know, provider visit and nurse follow-up.

KEITH: White House officials say the drive to vaccinate all Americans won't end on July 4 or when that 70% mark is hit. But demand being slow, the last of the federal mass vaccination sites shut down last week. There's hope among some officials that when the FDA gives full approval to the vaccines, it will sway some holdouts. Dr. Leana Wen is a public health expert who thinks it's going to take more.

LEANA WEN: Restrictions are lifted, and people can do whatever they want anyway. So then they're wondering, what's in it for me to be vaccinated?

KEITH: She says the White House has been squeamish about mandates and vaccine verification, but they may be necessary.

WEN: Yes, we should continue to do door-to-door outreach and making sure that doctor's offices and pharmacies carry the vaccine. That's not going to be enough. Ultimately, we're going to need requirements.

KEITH: Some colleges and workplaces are beginning to require vaccination, but it isn't widespread. Administration officials aren't going there. But they have begun more blunt messaging around the dangers of being unvaccinated, arguing any adult who dies from COVID now was an avoidable death since the vaccines are so effective and readily available.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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