President Joe Biden has urged Americans to wear face masks through next year during his visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) complex in Bethesda, Maryland on Thursday, Feb. 11.
Biden said doing so might save a significant number of lives. “We’re on track to cross 500,000 dead Americans this next month,” Biden said at a news conference with NIH Director Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci.
And in light of the new strains of the Wuhan coronavirus that have reached the United States, “masking” is still the easiest thing to do to save lives, Biden asserted. “[It’s] a pain in the neck, but it’s a patriotic responsibility.”
However, it is worth noting that he had promised a much shorter mask timeline last December. In an interview with CNN‘s Jake Tapper, Biden had said he will ask the public to mask for 100 days following his inauguration.
Constitutional experts had asserted back then that even the president has no legal authority to force Americans to wear face masks if they choose not to. But Biden asserted he would “set an example” by wearing a mask.
Furthermore, Biden said his administration has finalized deals for 100 million more doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines. These new orders come on top of doses scheduled to be delivered in March. “That means we’re now on track to have enough supply for 300 million Americans,” said Biden.
The vaccine manufacturers had also agreed to expedite the delivery of the new doses by a month. The doses are now scheduled to be delivered in May instead of June.
To date, 10.5 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. About 26 million doses of the vaccine have been administered during Biden’s first three weeks in office.
Less optimistic timelines
Even with the new vaccine deals, Fauci remains cautious. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the country may reach herd immunity by fall if the general public starts getting vaccines no later than June. But Fauci expressed concerns that new coronavirus variants like B.1.1.7 could further stretch that timeline.
Herd immunity occurs when a significant portion of a population becomes immune to a disease and the risk of transmission drops. It can be achieved through vaccination or natural infection. However, Biden himself admitted in a CBS News interview that it will be very difficult to achieve herd immunity by June.
In fact, officials within Biden’s administration said it is likely the U.S. will not reach herd immunity and return to some semblance of normalcy until Thanksgiving given the current pace of vaccinations.
Members of Biden’s own COVID-19 response team are even warning the White House that Biden’s vaccination timeline is unrealistic. Officials said the government’s less optimistic timelines for herd immunity are mostly driven by the potential fragility of the vaccine supply chain and the emergence of more infectious strains.
Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, said the coronavirus vaccines were so far effective against the B.1.1.7 strain in the United Kingdom. But new mutations might undermine the effectiveness of the shots administered thus far.
Peacock told the BBC that the B.1.1.7 variant is concerning because it would circulate for months, only to begin mutating again. The new mutations could greatly affect vaccination efforts towards herd immunity.
Therefore, health officials emphasized that current protocols like social distancing and mask-wearing will have to remain in force until the U.S. has achieved herd immunity against COVID-19. Fauci also warned that the country will only fully contain the problem if the pace of vaccinations increases worldwide as well.
The Biden Administration is also currently working with pharmaceutical companies to create vaccine “booster” shots for the new variants. Officials are also looking into building new infrastructures to ramp up testing. (Related: Evidence emerges that COVID tests are faulty. FDA and CDC admit as much.)