In his remarks to the nation after signing the latest COVID-19 relief legislation, President Joe Biden stretched the facts, particularly when boasting of the increase in vaccinations on his watch.
Biden spoke on March 11, marking a year since the nation began widespread shutdowns to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden was technically correct but left a misleading impression when he said: “Two months ago, this country didn’t have nearly enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all or ever near all of the American public, but soon we will.”
As we’ve written before, while the Biden administration has increased vaccine orders from the companies with authorized vaccines, the Trump administration had contracts in place for plenty of vaccines for all Americans — provided other vaccines gained authorizations. And Biden’s predecessor also had options to increase orders from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, the first two vaccines to get Food and Drug Administration authorization.
In December, Pfizer and Moderna had agreed to provide 400 million doses (200 million each) by the end of July, according to a Government Accountability Office report. In February, the Biden administration ordered another 200 million doses by the end of July, for a total of 600 million from the two companies for the two-dose vaccines. And the vaccine supply would come faster than originally anticipated.
But the Trump administration could have increased its order with those companies as well, as the initial agreements with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, signed last summer, included options to acquire hundreds of millions of additional doses.
Biden touted that his administration also worked with Johnson & Johnson — whose vaccine was authorized in late February — and Merck to have the two companies cooperate on expanding manufacturing of the J&J vaccine.
The president said there would be enough vaccines available for all adults in the country by the end of May, which is sooner than expected when he took office. But Biden’s remark leaves the misleading impression the previous administration hadn’t also embarked on a path to secure vaccine supply for all Americans.
Vaccines at Retail Pharmacies
In ticking off his administration’s accomplishments, Biden also said, “We’ve made it possible for you to get a vaccine at nearly any one of 10,000 pharmacies across the country, just like you get your flu shot.” Again, he is taking too much credit.
The Biden administration has made it possible to get vaccines at pharmacies — but not without the advance planning of the past two administrations.
On Sept. 16, the Trump administration announced a COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan, which included an “interim playbook” developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for distributing future vaccines. In the “COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations,” the CDC said it would use retail pharmacies to administer vaccines to the general population. As of Oct. 29, 12 major retail chains with over 35,000 store locations “have signed on to participate,” including Walgreens, CVS Health Corporation, Walmart Stores Inc. (including Sam’s Club) and Rite Aid, among others, the CDC document said.
CVS Health, for example, signed two memorandums of understanding in October with the Trump administration — “one for federal government’s Long-Term Care Vaccine program and one for the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program” — outlining the terms and conditions it needed to meet to receive vaccines, Joe Goode, senior director of corporate communications at CVS Health, told us.
As for getting the vaccines to pharmacies, the Trump administration announced in August that the McKesson Corporation would serve as the “central distributor of future COVID-19 vaccines.” McKesson will deliver vaccines to a designated location, many of which will be sites where the vaccines will be administered, the Trump administration said at the time.
But the Trump administration would not have been able to execute that agreement without the advance planning of the Obama administration.
The McKesson Corporation is “the same distributor that managed the federally coordinated H1N1 influenza pandemic vaccine campaign,” when Barack Obama was president and Biden was vice president, as explained by the Congressional Research Service. The Obama administration signed a contract with McKesson in 2016 that included “an option for the distribution of vaccines in the event of a pandemic,” Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services said at the time.
“CDC is drawing on its years of planning and cooperation with state and local public health partners to ensure a safe, effective, and life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is ready to be distributed following FDA approval,” then-CDC Director Robert Redfield said.
So, yes, it’s true that Biden recently announced the first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which initially will allow the public to receive vaccinations at more than 9,000 pharmacy locations and ultimately at more than 40,000 locations. But that was “made possible” by more than just the Biden administration.
Biden also promoted his administration’s record on administering vaccinations.
Biden, March 11: I said I intended to get a hundred million shots in people’s arms in my first hundred days in office. Tonight, I can say we’re not only going to meet that goal, we’re going to beat that goal because we’re actually on track to reach this goal of a hundred million shots in arms on my 60th day in office. No other country in the world has done this. None.
He’s right that his administration is on track to reach his goal of 100 million total vaccinations ahead of schedule. But, as we wrote last month, the U.S. — even before Biden took office — was virtually already on pace to administer that many additional vaccine doses in his first 100 days.
On the day Biden was inaugurated, the U.S. administered more than 1.5 million shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker. On that day, the seven-day average for the previous week was 990,243 shots a day.
By Biden’s second day in office, the seven-day average was at the 1 million doses per day average needed to meet his 100-day goal.
According to CDC data, the Biden administration would reach his goal of 100 million vaccinations on or shortly after his 60th day as president.
In addition, the U.S. will almost certainly be the first country to get to 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations, as Biden said. But the U.S. — which is the third most populous nation — is not the world leader in vaccinations per capita.
Looking at Our World in Data figures for total vaccination doses administered per capita for countries with a population of at least 1 million, Israel leads the world, with 106.05 doses per 100 people as of March 11. The U.S. ranks sixth at 29.67 doses per 100 people,as it is also behind the United Arab Emirates (64.78 doses per 100 people), the United Kingdom (35.95 doses per 100 people), Chile (32.09 doses per 100 people) and Bahrain (30.58 doses per 100 people).
COVID-19 Deaths Comparison
As he has done before, Biden compared the number of people who have been lost to COVID-19 to the number of people who died in certain U.S. wars.
“So I’ve told you before, I carry a card in my pocket with the number of Americans who have died from COVID to date,” the president said. “It’s on the back of my schedule. As of now, total deaths in America, 527,726. That’s more deaths than in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11 combined.”
But, as the Washington Post Fact Checker has noted, Biden’s math is off, based on available data.
Combined, there were at least 580,135 total deaths in the three wars that Biden mentioned, according to a Congressional Research Service report updated in July 2020. And the total rises to over 583,000 deaths when adding in the nearly 3,000 who died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
That’s more than the 527,726 deaths from COVID-19 that Biden mentioned in his remarks.
The president would have been on point if he had referred only to U.S. “combat” deaths in the two World Wars and the Vietnam War — which total 392,393 deaths. That’s what the White House previously told the Post’s Fact Checker that Biden meant to say.
Of course, the reported number of deaths from COVID-19 may be an undercount because it does not include deaths attributed to other causes or individuals who died from the disease but were never diagnosed.
Also, the CDC and others currently forecast that U.S. deaths from COVID-19 will continue to increase through at least April. The CDC estimates a total of between 547,000 and 571,000 COVID-19 deaths by April 3.
So, Biden’s comparison — even based on total war deaths, including deaths in and out of battle — could be accurate at some point in the near future.
The president’s larger point – that the death toll has been high – is accurate.
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