President Joe Biden is expected on Thursday to detail his administration’s plan to put pressure on private businesses, federal agencies and schools to enact stricter vaccination mandates and testing policies as the delta variant continues its spread across the United States, pushing the country’s daily average caseload over 150,000 for the first time since late January, overwhelming hospitals in hard-hit areas and killing roughly 1,500 people a day.
Biden, who was briefed by his team of coronavirus advisers on Wednesday afternoon, is set to deliver a speech at 5 p.m. Eastern time that will address about six areas where his administration can encourage — or, at this point, push — more eligible Americans to receive vaccines, according to the White House. Officials offered few specifics, stressing that the plan was still coming together, but its underlying driver is the conviction that the only way to return to some sense of normalcy in the country is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
“We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, will return people to normal life,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s what our objective is, so we want to be specific about what we’re trying to achieve.”
When asked if Biden would be adding more detail to existing policies or would outline measures that would have an immediate and broad effect on Americans, Psaki replied, “It depends on if you’re vaccinated or not.”
Administration officials see signs that more people in the country are open to receiving shots — some 14 million got their first shots in August, 4 million more than the number logged in July, Psaki said. However, a sizable number of people remains unvaccinated. About 27% of the eligible U.S. population age 12 and older have not received any COVID-19 vaccinations, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in some of the hardest-hit states the unvaccinated percentage is higher: 42% in Texas, for instance, and 38% in Florida.
About 1.3 million fully vaccinated people have received a third shot after federal officials approved them for people with compromised immune systems. Biden has publicly supported the idea of a broadening the availability of third shots as boosters for much more of the population, but health experts have advised the White House to hold off promoting that for now.
On Wednesday, Psaki said that the White House was working toward a plan for boosters, but did not give a time frame. She told reporters that Biden had chosen Thursday to deliver an extensive speech on the virus because he understood it was “top of mind for Americans” as they return to schools and offices.
The president will also be seeking to course-correct after a difficult month for his administration, directing the public away from a chaotic and violent end to the war in Afghanistan and back toward his administration’s efforts to curb a pandemic that has upended every facet of American life.
But amid renewed fears of the virus’s damaging effect on the economy and the prevalence of a troublesome variant, even Biden’s allies say it will take more than a speech to ease concerns that a wily virus has once again spiraled out of a president’s control.
“He ran on competence, bringing adults back into the room,” said Nick Rathod, a former domestic policy adviser to President Barack Obama. “This is something that he needs to take control of and show his level of competency. I think that’s why he was hired.”