Joe Biden said every US adult would be eligible for a coronavirus vaccination by May 1, as he touted “some real progress” in America’s fight against the pandemic and set the July 4 Independence Day holiday as a target for a return to some normality.
The goals were announced by the president during his first televised primetime address to the nation, which combined a more optimistic assessment of America’s ability to tame the virus with an emotional appeal for the country to keep its guard up against the disease.
“I need you, I need every American to do their part,” Biden said. “That will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but begin to mark our independence from this virus.”
Biden’s remarks came on the 50th day of his presidency, the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus lockdowns, and just hours after he signed a $1.9tn economic stimulus package into law in the Oval Office.
The US president won the 2020 election against Donald Trump in part by styling himself as the candidate who could bring competence to America’s fight against the pandemic. He used his speech on Thursday to strike a biting contrast with his predecessor.
“A year ago, we were hit with a virus that was met with silence and spread unchecked. Denials for days, weeks, then months, that led to more deaths, more infections, more stress and more loneliness,” Biden said.
The US president had until now hesitated to make predictions about rapid advances against the pandemic, saying last month it might take until Christmas for a decisive victory over the disease.
But on the back of a speedier inoculation drive, Biden offered a rosier timeline. He stuck to his estimate that the US would have enough vaccine supplies for all adults who wanted one by the end of May, but went a step further by directing all states, territories and tribes to make every person over 18 eligible for a jab by May 1.
“If we all do our part, this country will be vaccinated soon, our economy will be on the mend, our kids will be back in school,” the president said in a speech that balanced hope for the future with a recognition of the toll of the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 527,000 Americans.
“We’ll have proven once again that this country can do anything, hard things, big things, important things.”
Before he spoke, the White House announced that it would boost the number of active troops involved in supporting vaccination efforts by 4,000, bringing the total to 6,000. And it said it would expand the group of professionals who can administer the shots to include dentists, optometrists, midwives, veterinarians, and medical and nursing students.
Biden also promised that the government would set up a telephone hotline and a website to make it easier to receive a vaccination. “No more searching day and night for an appointment for you and your loved ones,” he said.
Biden tempered the prospects of a better outlook in the fight against the pandemic with a warning that there could still be setbacks.
“Scientists have made clear things can get worse again,” he said. “If we don’t stay vigilant and the conditions change, we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track — please, we don’t want to do that again.”
Some public health experts questioned whether Biden had the authority to direct states to widen eligibility for vaccines.
“He has no power to compel states to make vaccines available to everyone,” said Lawrence Gostin, a health law professor at Georgetown University. “Under US federalism, states have primary public health powers. The federal government’s health powers are limited under the constitution.”
However, an administration official insisted that Biden had “full authority to direct that the vaccine supply the federal government is providing to the states be distributed in accordance with our guidance”.
The official said that states were “obligated under the terms of their co-operative agreements” with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to comply with directives from the Department for Health and Human Services.
Biden’s speech was mostly focused on the government’s response to the pandemic, but he also recapped the benefits of his fiscal stimulus and its main provisions, including direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, an extension of federal jobless benefits, and an increase in the tax credit for children.
The legislation marks one of the largest US injections of government funds into the US economy in postwar history, and has broad support among Americans in opinion polls, although it passed Congress with only Democratic support.
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in New York