By President Biden’s predictions, fully vaccinated American adults would be able to receive a third shot of the coronavirus vaccine starting Monday.
It looks like the president jumped the gun, setting an artificial deadline that has left many Americans confused and state health officials scrambling to manage expectations. As we learned throughout this pandemic, confusion and mixed messaging usually lead to distrust in public health authorities, which already is killing Americans who don’t trust vaccines and expert guidance.
The president’s plan is bogged down in criticism after a Food and Drug Administration advisory group recommended against booster shots for anyone over 16 on Friday. Citing a lack of safety data and doubts about the value of mass boosters, the panel of outside experts recommended a third shot only for people over 65, at higher risk of severe disease or at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
That still accounts for millions of Americans, but it’s a far cry from the president’s message on Aug. 18 that “every fully vaccinated” adult would be eligible for a shot eight months after they finished their two-dose regimen of a Pfizer vaccine. During his speech, he carefully added a caveat: that his plan was “pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration” but what Americans heard is: “Boosters for everyone!”
The advisory group’s recommendation is not binding, and the FDA can choose to disregard it when it makes a decision, which is expected this week. But this has been dubbed by media outlets as a “heavy blow” and a “blowback” to Biden’s COVID-19 efforts. It leaves the impression that the president who vowed to “follow the experts” made a grand, but premature, policy announcement motivated by the need to shift public opinion during the same week his first major crisis began to unfold in Afghanistan.
“You know, this will boost your immune response, will increase your protection from COVID-19, it’s the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that could arise,” Biden said. “(The) plan is for every, every adult to get a booster shot eight months after you got your second shot. Pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC’s committee of outside experts will be ready to start this booster program during the week of Sept. 20.” That’s this week.
Biden didn’t necessarily fail to follow the experts. The data on boosters is evolving. Many experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe they are needed, and Israel demonstrated success with its campaign, which reportedly showed a 10-fold boost in protection. Disagreement among scientists is understandable given how quickly data in the middle of a pandemic can change, but Biden’s jumping ahead of an FDA decision makes his COVID response look chaotic.
Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already are go-to targets of anti-vaxxers. Unvaccinated Americans who can still be persuaded might feel less inclined to listen to authorities who appear they can’t reach a consensus on the efficacy and safety of booster shots.
We already saw how the CDC’s about-face on mask wearing has been weaponized by those who oppose mitigation measures to fight COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, the agency reversed its decision not to recommend facial coverings. Most recently, with the rise of the delta variant, it had to walk back its controversial recommendation that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks indoors. (The current recommendation is that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission.)
Of course, so much is beyond Biden’s and the federal government’s control: the conspiracy theories that are born on social media; the anti-vaccine rhetoric on Fox News, other far-right news outlets and Republican officials like Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are using their power to protect the so-called freedom of the unvaccinated and anti-maskers to infect the rest of us.
Since he entered the White House, Biden has been on the right side of this battle against the pandemic. But his response is under a microscope. How he communicates with Americans will be key, and any more missteps will come back to haunt him.
— The Miami Herald