People wait in line for COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this month in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
President Biden targeted social media platforms like Facebook on Friday for allowing the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, as many Americans’ resistance to getting the shots has left wide swaths of the country vulnerable to the more contagious Delta variant.
“They’re killing people,” he said when asked about the misinformation and what he’d say to such platforms. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”
The remark came in answer to a reporter’s question as Biden left the White House for Camp David, at the end of a week in which his administration began to push back more strongly against misinformation about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, blaming it for some Americans’ unwillingness to get their shots.
Facebook responded by saying it would “not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” emphasizing that millions of people have found accurate information about the virus and the vaccines on its platform.
“The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives,” said company spokesperson Dani Lever. “Period.”
Although COVID-19 caseloads remain far below those at the pandemic’s worst moments, the number of infections is increasing in every state, and rising numbers of deaths are expected in the coming weeks.
Roughly half of the country is fully inoculated and the vaccines remain effective against the Delta variant, limiting the potential devastation from the growing outbreaks. But the latest infections could herald a wave of unnecessary deaths in the world’s richest nation, with the largest stockpile of readily accessible vaccines.
The resurgence of COVID-19 cases represents a setback for Biden, who has staked his presidency on ending the pandemic and ushering in an economic recovery. The increases are greatest in areas that favored his election rival, former President Trump, reflecting the prior administration’s politicization of the pandemic response, which left many conservatives averse to wearing masks, social distancing and now to getting vaccines.
Data released this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows a widening gap in vaccination rates between red and blue counties. As of April 22, 22.8% of residents in counties that voted for Biden in November’s election were fully vaccinated, compared with 20.6% in counties that voted for Trump. As of July 6, 44.7% of people in pro-Biden counties were vaccinated, versus 35% in those that favored Trump.
President Biden said Friday that misinformation on social media about COVID-19 vaccines was “killing people.” (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
Unlike the increase in caseloads that occurred in April, the current outbreaks are happening at a time when anyone who is at least 12 years old can get vaccinated. The country is now averaging 26,300 new cases per day, a 70% increase from the previous week, and 2,790 hospitalizations, a 36% increase. Deaths have started to rise as well, increasing 26% to an average of 211 a day nationwide.
“Each COVID-19 death is tragic,” said Jeff Zients, the head of Biden’s task force on the pandemic response, at a briefing Friday. “And those happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable.”
Polls show that Republicans are much less willing than Democrats and political independents to get vaccinated. Right-wing media and conservative politicians have encouraged skepticism of the shots.
Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host, described as “creepy stuff” a door-to-door outreach campaign that the Biden administration has promoted. Tucker Carlson, who has the network’s highest-rated show, described the vaccination campaign as “the greatest scandal in [his] lifetime.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has baselessly suggested that side effects of the vaccines can cause death.
Alarmed by such falsehoods, the administration is fighting back. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued his first formal health advisory Thursday, warning that misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines poses an “imminent and insidious threat.”
Such advisories are typically issued to warn Americans about such matters as the dangers of tobacco use or the opioid epidemic; Murthy’s bulletin was the first to target misinformation.
Although falsehoods have circulated during previous public health crises, notably including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Murthy said the speed with which rumors can spread online required strong action. He urged social media companies to be more aggressive in limiting misinformation on their platforms.
“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” Murthy said Friday.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned about the dangers of misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
Facebook said Friday that 2 billion people worldwide have found “authoritative information” about COVID-19 and vaccines on its platform, and 3.3 million Americans have used its vaccine-finder tool. The company previously said it had removed millions of examples of COVID-19 falsehoods.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had polio as a child before he could get vaccinated against the disease, said at a news conference Tuesday that people need to get inoculated.
“We need to finish the job,” he said. “Part of it is just convincing the American people of the importance of doing this.”
Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the country needs “trusted messengers” — such as family members, friends and healthcare providers — to promote COVID vaccination to hesitant people in their communities.
She said that should include “talking about how the vaccines have been tested, talking about how the technology has been around for four decades, talking about that there isn’t going to be a chip implanted in people.”
Besides encouraging those conversations, the White House has been cycling through different tactics to boost vaccinations. After phasing out operations that allowed thousands of people a day to get their shots, health officials are focusing on mobile clinics, pharmacies and doctor’s offices.
Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, have traveled around the country to promote the vaccines. So has First Lady Jill Biden, who has swung through red states including Tennessee and Texas.
Increasing attention has been paid to encouraging young people to get vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal expert in infectious diseases, has sat down for interviews with influencers on the widely used video platform TikTok. And popular singer and actor Olivia Rodrigo, 18, visited the White House on Wednesday to join Biden and Press Secretary Jen Psaki in publicly urging youths to get vaccinated.
Health experts warn that although young people are generally less susceptible to the coronavirus, they can still fall seriously ill or transmit it to more vulnerable people.
Ultimately it may be the new threat from the Delta variant that gives previously skeptical people an incentive to get their shots. Zients, the pandemic task force leader, said that the five states with the highest infection rates — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada — have recently seen vaccination rates increase to exceed the national average.
The coronavirus’ Delta variant, which was first detected in India, is responsible for more than half of the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. It appears contagious enough to increase infections among unprotected Americans even in places with high vaccination rates, like San Francisco. Although 76% of the city’s residents older than 12 have been fully inoculated, cases and hospitalizations have begun ticking up, according to data shared by Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine.
Los Angeles County has also seen a surge of new infections, with the average daily caseload ballooning from 173 in mid-June to 1,077 this week. County officials have announced that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, needs to wear masks indoors in public settings starting Saturday night.
Federal health authorities say those who are fully vaccinated do not appear to need booster shots for protection from the Delta variant, but Zients said the government is prepared to change that advice if research shows otherwise.
“We are ready for whatever the science tells us,” he said. “We’ve secured enough vaccine supply.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.