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Urging vigilance, sombre Biden tells states to speed up vaccination

By Reuters | March 12th 2021

US President Joe Biden delivers his first prime time address as president, marking the one-year anniversary of widespread shutdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and speaking about the impact of the pandemic during an address from the East Room of the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2021. [Reuters]

President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would direct US states to make all adults eligible for the coronavirus vaccine by May 1 and urged Americans in a televised address to stay vigilant against the virus, hours after he signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law. 

In a forceful but sombre speech from the White House on the first anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, Biden said he was working to speed Covid-19 vaccinations to create a greater sense of normalcy in the country by July 4 Independence Day holiday.

That date is a new goal for the president, who has warned Americans that further pain and death were still to come from the virus that has killed over 530,000 people in the United States, the most of any country. Coronavirus-related lockdowns and restrictions have cost millions of jobs.

In a recounting of the grim toll the pandemic has taken on the nation, Biden said: “Photos and videos from 2019 feel like they were taken in another era. The last vacation. The last birthday with friends. The last holiday with extended family.

“While it was different for everyone, we all lost something,” he said, noting that the virus was met with “denials for days, then weeks, then months, that led to more deaths, more infections, more stress, more loneliness.”

But as the financial stimulus from the newly enacted relief bill reaches a growing number of vaccinated people, Biden offered cautious optimism to a country that, like the rest of the world, is tired of pandemic restrictions and economic pain.

Biden said he was ordering US states, territories and tribes to make all adults eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine by May 1. The White House has said it would have enough vaccine supply to vaccinate the population by the end of May. About 10% of Americans have so far been fully vaccinated.

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The president also said more US troops would help in the vaccination effort, adding that families and friends should be able to gather again in small groups by July 4, a holiday that many Americans celebrate with outdoor parties, hot dogs and fireworks.

The White House is also seeking to expand the pool of people able to administer shots to include dentists, optometrists, paramedics, veterinarians and medical students.

Biden campaigned last year on a promise that he would tackle the pandemic more effectively than Republican President Donald Trump, and he has sought to encourage and model behaviour, such as mask-wearing, that Trump eschewed.

He encouraged Americans to keep up mitigation efforts - wearing masks, keeping socially distant and practising good hygiene - to stop the spread of the virus as the pace of vaccinations increases. Several states have been loosening restrictions.

“We faced and overcame one of the toughest and darkest periods in this nation’s history, the darkest we’ve ever known,” Biden said, adding: “I promise you will come out stronger.”

‘Fighting chance’

Earlier in the day, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan law, designed to be a financial bridge to hard-hit Americans and a boost to the economy, with Vice President Kamala Harris at his side in the Oval Office. The package is a major political victory for the Democratic president less than two months into his administration.

Biden and top members of his administration will embark on a victory lap in coming weeks to laud and explain the legislation, which got final approval from the US House of Representatives on Wednesday.

“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation - working people and middle-class folks, the people who built the country - a fighting chance,” Biden said before the signing.

The package provides $400 billion for $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, an expansion of the child tax credit and increased funding for Covid-19 vaccine distribution. The bill passed without a single vote from Republicans, who complained the price tag was too steep.

Biden will discuss the benefits of the pandemic relief bill during trips to Pennsylvania next Tuesday and Atlanta on March 19.

The lockdown from the virus began under Trump, who played down the crisis in its early stages while repeatedly predicting the virus would soon disappear even as his administration pushed to speed up vaccine development.

The former president and his wife, Melania Trump, did not appear in a public service announcement released on Thursday encouraging Covid-19 vaccinations and featuring all the other living former US presidents and their spouses.

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