President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would direct US states to make all adults eligible for the coronavirus vaccine by May 1 as he told Americans that he was hoping the country would be able to achieve some kind of normality by the Independence Day holiday on July 4.
In a forceful but sombre speech to mark the first anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, Biden said he was working to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations, hours after signing a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law.
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The July 4 date is a new goal for the president, who has warned Americans of further pain and death from a virus that has already killed more than 530,000 people in the United States, more than any other country in the world. Coronavirus-related lockdowns and restrictions have cost millions of jobs.
In a recounting of the 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.”
“Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it might be the most American thing we do,” he said in the speech from the White House offering cautious optimism to a country that, like the rest of the world, has grown weary of the pandemic and its restrictions.
“Biden was saying: ‘Let’s work together. We’re nearing the finish line’,” said Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, DC.
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 supplies to inoculate the population by the end of May. About 10 percent of Americans have so far been fully vaccinated.
The president also announced thousands of more troops would be deployed to help in the vaccination effort and said 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. A number of states have been loosening restrictions.
“Not only did Biden acknowledge the mourning and the losses of the last year, he also announced many different policies – from making sure Americans get the vaccine quite quickly to all the ways in which he’s going to the economic and healthcare problems facing Americans,” Elisabeth Anker, an expert in American politics at George Washington University, told Al Jazeera.
“And on top of that, he was also calling for a sea change in the way Americans address government. That government is not out to harm Americans. He’s saying that we are the government and the government is here to solve our problems and make our lives better.”
Earlier in the day Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris at his side in the Oval Office, signed the American Rescue Plan law, designed to be a financial bridge to hard-hit Americans and a boost to the economy.
The last year has tested us in unimaginable ways, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
We will emerge stronger. pic.twitter.com/FJUnsVoKXX
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 12, 2021
The package, which secured final approval from the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, is a substantial political victory for the Democratic president less than two months into his administration.
“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 $400bn for $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, $350bn in aid to state and local governments, an expansion of the child tax credit and increased funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Republicans 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 due to the virus began under Trump, who played down the crisis in its early stages while repeatedly claiming the coronavirus 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 of the other living former US presidents and their spouses.