President Joe Biden conjured a vision of Americans coming back together and reclaiming their freedom from the worst ravages of the pandemic as a nation long silenced by sickness and death exploded back to life on the Fourth of July.
But the President was unable to declare full independence from the virus, as he had long hoped, with a more infectious Delta variant bearing down on those Americans still skeptical of the vaccines that promise full national restoration.
Some 67.1% of adults had at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine by July 4, just short of his original target of 70%, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on Sunday.
“Over the past year, we’ve lived through some of our darkest days,” Biden said in a fiery speech at a packed, mask-free Independence Day party at the White House on a balmy Sunday evening.
“Now I truly believe – I give you my word as a Biden – I truly believe we’re about to see our brightest future,” Biden said.
Despite looming concerns over infection spikes among unvaccinated Americans in months to come, there was a heady mood of liberation from coast to coast, as excited crowds that would have been unthinkable only weeks ago gathered to watch the huge annual fireworks displays.
People packed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and the National Mall – deserted during Biden’s inaugural address that came at a time when daily Covid cases averaged nearly 200,000 – was jammed with families. A huge party unfolded in the first moment of national shared experience and catharsis since Covid-19 reached US shores.
As the sun set in New York City, pleasure boats thronged the harbor. At a Fort Lauderdale party, the Beach Boys with John Stamos recalled golden memories of pre-pandemic summers as they wished “they all could be California girls” before a close quarters crowd. In cities including Nashville and Philadelphia, live bands jammed before mass audiences.
Spectacular fireworks displays erupted over Washington and Manhattan after 9 p.m. ET, and as skies darkened across the continent, they trigged a chain reaction as fireworks burst in air in red, white and blue. The finale of the Washington display ended in a deafening chorus of detonations and pyrotechnics that painted the sky over the nation’s capital a shade of deep, fiery red.
Biden’s speech was simultaneously a patriotic pep talk, a rallying cry for the elusive national unity on which he anchored his presidency, a moment of mourning for 600,000 Americans lost to Covid-19 and a public service announcement for the power of vaccines.
There was also a clear sense that the President was banking political capital after promising to wrest control of the pandemic after former President Donald Trump’s neglect. Nearly four decades after President Ronald Reagan proclaimed his “Morning again in America” moment, Biden effectively did the same.
“Just think back to where this nation was a year ago. Think back to where you were a year ago,” Biden said. “Think about how far we have come. From silent streets to crowded parades lined with people waving American flags … (From) families pressing hands against a window to grandparents hugging their grandchildren once again.”
Yet the specter of mutating virus that has an almost uncanny sixth sense in targeting US political divides, still hung over celebrations that represented the most hopeful moment for about 16 months.
The President said that while the virus “no longer controls our lives and no longer paralyzes our nation,” hard work still lies ahead. Biden said that just as the first Independence Day in 1776 was a call to action, not a reason for complacency or claim of victory, “the same is true today.”
Indeed some health experts fear that the July Fourth barbecues and crowds for fireworks could turn into their own super-spreader events in areas of the country where people have so far proven immune to a Democratic President’s argument that getting their shots is an act of ultimate patriotism.
The White House didn’t require attendees at Biden’s event to be vaccinated — only tested for Covid-19. Biden walked unmasked into the crowds, as he did at an event scheduled to mark America’s reopening in Michigan on Saturday. His return to his favorite face-to-face politicking appears calculated to send a message that once a person is vaccinated, all the impediments that have muffled life over the last year fall away with little risk of infection.
‘If you’re not vaccinated, you are not protected’
Earlier Sunday, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients argued that despite missing Biden’s 70% target for all Americans to have one dose of vaccine by July 4, the country had come “further along” in the fight to beat the pandemic than many would have anticipated.
He told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” that he didn’t believe that the US had plateaued when it comes to vaccine take-up, despite skepticism about getting inoculated in many conservative regions.
“If you’re not vaccinated, you are not protected, so we’re going to double down on our efforts to vaccinate millions of more Americans across July and August,” he said.
The government’s top infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci meanwhile underscored that those regions where vaccine penetration is low could face miserable months to come. He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that while the US is “unlikely to suffer a national spike” in Covid-19 infections, the Delta variant meant that there would be “regional” virus hotspots. And Fauci, who has been attacked by Trump and conservative allies keen to cover up his poor handling of the virus as president, pleaded with Americans to finally overcome politically motivated skepticism of vaccines.
“For goodness sakes, put aside all of those differences and realize that the common enemy is the virus,” Fauci said.
Former CDC Director Thomas Frieden stressed that the vaccine program was developed under the Trump administration, in an apparent attempt to inoculate it from politics.
“This is a huge triumph. The vaccines were developed under the Trump administration. They were then rolled out largely in the current administration. They’re a victory not for Democrats or Republicans, they’re a victory for people over the virus. And the more of us who get vaccinated, the more we can do,” Frieden said on Fox News Sunday.
‘We can live our lives’
Data supports Biden’s comeback narrative.
New Covid-19 cases are averaging around 12,600 a day, down from a peak of 250,000 in the darkest days of winter. And despite a vastly improved situation — an average of 257 Americans are dying every single day, according to the seven-day average tracked by the CDC. The most tragic thing about this triple digit death toll is that almost all of it could be prevented by vaccines.
Fauci told “Meet the Press” that only 0.8% of deaths from Covid-19 are currently being recorded in people who were vaccinated. New figures showing that 850,000 people returned to work last month underscore the notion that the economy is on the rebound, after several months of disappointing figures.
In a briefing on Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky highlighted the marked difference in vaccination rates. She said that about 1,000 counties in the United States have vaccination coverage of less than 30%, creating a huge opening for the Delta variant, primarily in the Southeast and Midwest. Globally meanwhile, vast populations without the access to vaccines enjoyed by the US and other rich nations, the virus is still raging — raising the possibility of new mutations that could evade current vaccines.
But the mood of celebration marked a tantalizing moment of hope that if Covid-19 is not yet fully vanquished, that day is coming closer.
The President drew a comparison between a new nation’s liberation from colonial oppression and the same one 245 years later approaching freedom from viral domination.
“Back then we had the power of an idea on our side,” Biden said. “Today we have the power of science.”
“Thanks to our heroic vaccine effort, we’ve gained the upper hand against this virus,” he went on. “We can live our lives. Kids can go back to school. Our economy is roaring back.”