Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine goal isn’t ambitious enough

President Joe Biden has promised a faster Covid-19 vaccine rollout, vowing to administer 100 million shots during his first 100 days in office — enough to fully vaccinate at least 50 million Americans.

But that goal is no longer as ambitious as it once appeared.

Over the past week, America has already averaged about 900,000 vaccinations a day, making Biden’s goal of 1 million a day barely a step up from what the country reached before he took office on Wednesday.

This rate of vaccination is much slower than many experts would like. Some have called for finishing the vaccination campaign by or in the summer. But the current rate — and Biden’s goal — would fall short of that.

By expert estimates, 70 to 80 percent of Americans, or more, need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity and sufficient population protection. Splitting the difference, that means at least 245 million Americans likely need to be vaccinated, with 15 million already getting at least first-time doses. Even with new vaccines hitting the market and supply ramping up, the current rate, or Biden’s goal, means it could take until fall at the earliest to reach herd immunity — or even as late as 2022.

Peter Hotez, an infectious disease and vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told me that America should aim for at least 2 million a day — and preferably 3 million. That’s what would get some of the most important parts of vaccination efforts done this summer or earlier.

Those extra months of a slow rollout really matter. With more than 3,000 people dying of Covid-19 a day in the US, a delay of months could potentially mean hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. While vaccination efforts, particularly those targeting the most vulnerable populations, will bring that death toll down, even a rate of hundreds of deaths a day would result in tens of thousands of extra deaths over months.

And a slower rollout means more time before life and the economy go back to normal.

A slow vaccination campaign could make the pandemic worse in other ways. Hotez pointed to new virus variants, some of which have already come out of the UK and South Africa, that could be more infectious or deadlier. With every day that the country, and the world, goes unvaccinated, the risk of a worse variant appearing remains. That creates even more pressure to go fast.

Biden’s goal would grow vaccination rates just 11 percent

So far, the Biden administration has given unpersuasive explanations for its limited goal.

The president himself responded to questions about his goal being too low on Thursday with frustration: “When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on. Give me a break, man. It’s a good start.”

It’s true some reporters questioned the goal when it came out. But circumstances change. It’s pretty clear now that 1 million a day is possible — and the US, in fact, was already almost there before Biden took office.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki provided a more detailed response at a briefing, arguing the Trump administration only managed to achieve half of Biden’s goal — about 500,000 shots a day — since the US’s vaccine rollout began in December. But that includes a period in which vaccinations were first getting started and going very slowly. The current average, over the past week, is more than 900,000 per day.

Psaki, as well as chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, continued to call the goal “ambitious.” But growing current vaccination rates by 11 percent over more than three months isn’t particularly ambitious. Based on the past week’s trends, that likely would have happened regardless of the person in the Oval Office.

Perhaps the Biden administration is scared to overpromise, especially after Trump’s team clearly did when they promised 20 million vaccinations and 40 million doses in 2020 — a goal that the country still hasn’t hit three weeks into 2021.

But that shouldn’t mean settling for a prolonged outbreak that kills potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Covid-19 is America’s — and the world’s — most pressing crisis. Biden has promised to get us out of it. To really do that, he should go bolder.

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Update: Clarified the timeline for herd immunity based on different vaccination rates.

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