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WASHINGTON — Coronavirus rates are rising and masks are returning in some areas, but President Biden had a simple message on Wednesday evening: Get your coronavirus vaccine and, having done so, don’t worry about reports of “breakthrough infections,” which have caused some vaccinated people to test positive for the coronavirus.
“There are very, very, very, very, very, very few people” who’ve contracted COVID-19 after having been fully vaccinated, the president told reporters. And those infections, he added, are “not life-threatening,” because the coronavirus vaccines are exceptionally effective at preventing severe and critical illness.
Some vaccinated people could still experience unpleasant symptoms if they become infected but, as the president pointed out, are extremely unlikely to experience much more than that.
“I know of none where they’re hospitalized, in ICU and/or passed away,” Biden said of such breakthrough cases. He may have been referring to something that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last week, that 99.5 percent of Americans who died of COVID in June were unvaccinated.
The rise of the more transmissible Delta variant has stoked concerns that a new coronavirus wave is at hand. But while the variant spreads easily, it does not necessarily cause more severe illness.
“We know the Delta variant can be easier to give and get,” Dr. Kavita Patel, a Brookings Institution fellow and former Obama administration policy aide, told Yahoo News. “We know that it can reproduce in the body faster. We do not think it leads to higher-than-expected deaths or hospitalizations.”
Fully vaccinated people are as protected from Delta as they are from all other coronavirus variants. “There’s no question that if you’re vaccinated, you are far more protected and safer than someone who is not vaccinated because you are at a much, much lower risk of getting infected. Period,” Patel said.
Biden has continued to plead with people to get vaccinated; there is unanimous agreement that vaccines, not masks or lockdowns, will lead to the end of the pandemic. Life has largely returned to normal in highly vaccinated parts of the country, even as the coronavirus proliferates in states like Florida, Arkansas and Missouri, where restrictions had been lifted but vaccinations have not been forcefully encouraged.
Biden made his remarks about breakthrough infections late Wednesday night as he was leaving Cincinnati on the way back to Washington, D.C. He had just concluded a CNN town hall during which he’d made much the same point.
“We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten a vaccination,” Biden told CNN anchor Don Lemon, adding a little later, “There’s a simple, basic proposition: If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in an ICU unit and you’re not going to die.”
He added that “this is not a pandemic,” an apparent reference to areas of the country where community spread has effectively been halted. The difference in vaccination rates has given rise to “two COVID nations,” as Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, put it recently to Yahoo News.
For the first months of his administration, Biden was accused by some critics of being too cautious on lifting the crippling restrictions that marked most of 2020. They said that he should have vigorously urged the reopening of schools for in-person instruction, and that he could have taken his mask off as soon as he and other White House staff were fully vaccinated.
More recently, though, it has been obvious that Biden is eager to move past the pandemic. After all, the return of lockdowns and other restrictions, such as a new year of remote learning in schools, would almost certainly frustrate the economic recovery that will help shape his administration’s legacy.
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