- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2021

President Biden faces an unofficial Memorial Day deadline to get America back to normal as officials fling open vaccine eligibility and public inertia demands tailored messaging about what’s permissible on the cusp of summer.

Mr. Biden targeted July 4 as an entry point to normalcy with backyard barbecues, but some say a mix of spring fever and the looming surge in vaccinations demands a more ambitious timeline.

“I know the president said he’d like to see the return to some sort of normalcy by the Fourth of July, but I’d like to see it done by Memorial Day,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said during a recent visit to a mass-vaccination site.

Texas and five other states became the latest on Monday to make all adults eligible for the vaccine, meaning at least 15 states will offer widespread eligibility before April begins. Nearly all states are on track to beat Mr. Biden’s May 1 deadline to make the shots available to everyone 18 and older.

Paul Mango, a key official in former President Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed,” said he expects many Americans to “cut loose” by May 31 given the combination of vaccinations and natural immunity from prior infection by that point.

“They’ve been locked up too long and they see no discernible difference in outcomes whether a jurisdiction is locked down or not,” said Mr. Mango, deputy chief of staff policy under former Health Secretary Alex Azar. “Fourth of July will be way too late. The grills/barbecues will be going full blast by Memorial Day.”

President Biden said Monday he expects nine in 10 American adults to be eligible for the vaccine within three weeks as most states beat his goal of making those 18 and older eligible by May. He also said 90% of adults will live within five miles of a vaccine site as of April 19, as the federal government expands the number of participating pharmacies from 17,000 to 40,000, sets up new mass-vaccination sites and funds community vaccination efforts to reach more seniors and the disabled.

He didn’t provide a new standard for returning to normalcy but said it can come sooner if people keep up basic precautions.

“Mask up. It’s a patriotic duty. It’s the only way we get back to normal,” Mr. Biden said from the White House. “To cheer together in stadiums full of fans. To gather together at holidays again safely, to go to graduations, weddings.”

He pleaded for ongoing vigilance as optimism about vaccination collides with a worsening case count around the U.S. The rolling average of coronavirus cases plateaued above 50,000 in recent weeks and is starting to rise again, spooking disease-trackers who saw a similar trend in Europe and fear needless deaths.

“Right now, I’m scared,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a White House COVID-19 briefing. “I so badly want to be done. I know you all so badly want to be done. We are just almost there but not quite yet. So I’m asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can, so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends.”

Her voice cracking with emotion, Dr. Walensky said she has seen the toll of the virus on patients first-hand and doesn’t want to see a relapse in the fight.

The situation places the government’s messaging in an awkward phase, with officials racing not just the virus but also a public that’s eager to enjoy the warm weather or take family trips as they hear about America’s world-leading vaccine campaign.

“You can’t run around saying ‘get vaccinated and it works,’ and at the same time that things are out of control,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “If you don’t get these messages refined and targeted, they’re going to get ignored.”

He said the likelihood of spread is different in a fully vaccinated nursing home versus, say, bars full of unvaccinated people in beach towns, so the guidance should reflect that.

“In the real world, Memorial Day is a big day. Whether the government likes it or public health likes it, a COVID-weary public is likely to erupt in all types of risky behavior, all kinds of social interaction as the weather improves. I think that’s the reality, [even if] it may not be in sync with what the smartest thing to do,” Mr. Caplan said. “What we need to do is think hard about what normalcy is, and then start to target messages to certain groups.”

The administration has issued some guidance about what vaccinated persons can do in household settings. It says additional guidance on issues such as travel will come soon.

The White House said Monday the government will issue guidance on COVID-19 vaccine “passports” so Americans can show proof of immunization at airports or other settings, as industries work through ways to reopen society while maintaining health-privacy protections.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said private companies will develop and issue the actual documents.

She said there will be no federal database or a mandate that people obtain a certain type of credential.

“That issue will touch many agencies, as verification is an issue that will potentially touch many sectors of society,” she said. “A determination or development of [a] vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector.”

She said the federal guidance will ensure that vaccine documents are accessible to everyone, though she didn’t offer a timeline for its release.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said Monday that he would issue an executive order forbidding local governments and businesses in his state from requiring vaccine passports.

“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply participate in normal society,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Efforts to plot a path to normalcy come as states lift occupancy limits and sports leagues try to put fans back into seats.

Baseball franchises across the country are allowing thousands of fans to return for Opening Day this week, typically at 20%-40% stadium capacity, while Memorial Day will arrive one month into the full vaccine-eligibility season outlined by Mr. Biden.

Increasingly, the risk will be that public health guidance lags “what the public is already doing,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“It’s likely that normalcy will return in summer,” he said, “but as hospital capacity is no longer threatened — due to the pace of vaccination in high-risk individuals — I think it will return sooner in many states.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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