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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced employer tax credits and other steps to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as his administration tries to overcome diminishing demand across the nation for the shots.
The moves came as Biden celebrated reaching his goal of 200 million doses being administered in his first 100 days in office. But with over half of U.S. adults at least partially vaccinated and roughly 28 million doses being delivered each week, demand now has eclipsed supply as the constraining factor to vaccinations in much of the country.
In a White House speech, Biden acknowledged entering a "new phase" in the vaccination effort that relies on increased outreach to Americans to get their shots, both to protect them and their communities.
"Vaccines can save your own life, but they can also save your grandmother's life, your co-worker's life, the grocery store clerk or the delivery person helping you and your neighbors get through the crisis," Biden said. "That's why you should get vaccinated."
Over the past week, the pace of inoculation in the United States has slowed slightly. That is partly a reflection of disruptions from the "pause" in administration of the Johnson & Johnson shot for a safety review, but also of softening interest for vaccines in many places. Roughly 130 million Americans have yet to receive one dose.
Surveys have shown that vaccine hesitancy has declined since the rollout of the shots, but administration officials believe they have to make getting vaccinated easier and more appealing, particularly for younger Americans who are less at risk from the virus and do not feel the same urgency. That means providing incentives and encouragement to get vaccinated, as well as reducing friction surrounding the vaccination process.
Biden announced a new tax credit for small businesses to provide paid leave for those getting vaccinated or potentially needing to take time off to recover from side effects. Paid for through the $1.9 trillion virus relief package passed last month, the tax change would provide a credit of up to $511 per day, per employee for businesses with fewer than 500 workers to ensure that those workers or businesses don't suffer a penalty by getting vaccinated.
The White House is urging larger employers to provide the same benefits to their workers, and educate them about the shots and encourage them to get vaccinated.
"We're calling on every employer, large and small, in every state — give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated," Biden said.
As Biden celebrated the vaccine milestone of 200 million doses, there is a different reality in the states.
In Iowa, nearly half the counties last week declined new doses of the vaccine from the state's allotment because demand has fallen. In Florida, Palm Beach County plans to close mass vaccination clinics at the end of May with thousands of available vaccine slots unclaimed. In rural West Virginia, a vaccine clinic at a casino/racetrack parking garage is opening shots to out-of-state residents to address lagging demand. The hope is that people from Washington, D.C., make the hour's drive to get vaccinated. In Arizona, a plan collapsed that would have opened a federally run vaccine site in Tucson; demand is slipping and county officials preferred more targeted, mobile locations.
Through its partnership with more than 40,000 retail pharmacies, the White House says more than 90 percent of Americans now live within 5 miles of a vaccination site. The administration is encouraging state and local efforts to bring vaccines directly to people, whether through initiatives reaching the homebound or clinics at large employment sites.
Many states have also begun to open up vaccination sites to walk-in appointments, reducing reliance on often-cumbersome reservation systems.
Maximizing the number of Americans vaccinated in the coming months is critical for the White House, which is aiming to restore a semblance of normalcy around the July Fourth holiday and even more so by the beginning of the next school year. But administration officials have been careful to avoid predicting when the country will have reached herd immunity — when enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely.