A week into his presidency, Joe Biden made the confident prediction that any American who wanted a Covid shot would be able to get one by spring.
By his fourth week, that timeline had slipped to mid-summer. But as the administration prepared to authorize a third coronavirus vaccine, and with a surge of doses on the horizon, Biden last week debuted a new target: widespread vaccine availability by April.
The mixed messages risk sowing confusion across the country as the nation enters the second year of the pandemic, testing the administration’s ability to overcome still-significant pockets of vaccine skepticism and make good on its pledge of large-scale immunization within Biden’s first 100 days in office.
“On this score, I think the communication has been very uneven,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who advised the Biden transition. “There’s been some uncertainty, and because there’s a wide variety of estimates here, you get people at different times taking either the optimistic view or the pessimistic view and going out with that.”
The messaging challenge is now set to play out as millions of doses of newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine head to state health departments, pharmacies and community centers.
The White House has long viewed the J&J shot — which requires just a single dose and is easier to store — as critical to its Covid response, especially in vaccinating hard-to-reach communities. Yet the vaccine has been shown in trials to be less effective than those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, stoking fears that consumers will hold out for what they perceive to be the “best” shot.
That’s prompted a scramble to sell the public on its merits, with health officials making a concerted effort to promote the J&J vaccine in the coming days.
“All three vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing what we care about most, and that’s very serious illness and death,” Marcella Nunez-Smith, head of the White House’s Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force, said on Monday.
Administration officials have also encouraged outside allies to play up the vaccine’s benefits, people familiar with discussions said, as an initial supply of 3.9 million doses is distributed across the U.S. this week.
And in a sign of the White House’s desire to get ahead of similar challenges down the line, one data table circulated among medical surrogates includes yet-to-be-authorized vaccines from AstraZeneca and Novavax among the list of vaccines where it emphasizes studies found “NO cases of hospitalizations.”