Every adult in the United States will be eligible within two weeks to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday, moving up by two weeks the previous May 1 deadline for open season for inoculations.
"No more confusing rules. No more confusing restrictions," said Biden, at the White House, announcing that by May 19 everyone "18 or older will be eligible to be vaccinated."
The president's announcement comes amid a fourth surge of COVID-19 cases in the country with an increase in infections among young adults.
"We aren't at the finish line," Biden cautioned. "We still have a lot of work to do. We're still in a life and death race against this virus."
With progress against the coronavirus stalling in the United States, the president earlier Tuesday afternoon visited a pop-up inoculation site, 12 kilometers south of the White House, where he highlighted the push for intensified vaccinations.
"When you go home, get all your friends, tell them get a shot when they can," Biden said to those inside a chapel of the Virginia Theological Seminary waiting to be vaccinated.
Over the past week, new coronavirus cases are up 7% compared to the previous seven-day period. Hospitalizations have increased 3%, while deaths from the coronavirus are reported to be down slightly to about 800 fatalities per day.
The rise in infections is blamed on the loosening of mask wearing mandates, higher attendance at public events, increased domestic travel and the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.
"They are more virulent," Biden said at the inoculation site of the new COVID-19 strains. "They are more dangerous, but the vaccines work on all of them."
The White House and health officials are struggling to keep prominent the message of continued vigilance after a tiring 13 months of life restrained by and fear of the coronavirus.
"It is very difficult for people to keep two notions in their minds at the same time. The vaccinations are good, they're protecting a lot of people, but I still have to be wearing my mask and being very careful — social distancing," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "We need to ask people to do that for a few more months."
As with nearly all states, Virginia had previously announced that everyone, age 16 and older, would become eligible for shots by about the middle of this month, ahead of the previous deadline set by the White House. But in the northern part of the state, an affluent region that is home to many federal government workers, the supply of COVID-19 vaccinations has been outstripped by demand.
"In order to succeed and be able to meet the governor's goal, we're going to need dramatically more doses coming to Northern Virginia," said Jeff McKay, the chairman of the county board in Fairfax County, the state's most populous jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, a tier of essential workers labeled 1c — a diverse group including restaurant workers, garbage haulers, hair stylists, lawyers and accountants — has been eligible for vaccinations in rural districts, but not yet in the most populated area in the north.
Throughout the Washington region, many doses have been reserved for hard-to-reach and vulnerable patients while others who were willing to get inoculated immediately found themselves unable to get vaccinated.
Having enough vaccine for all American adults eligible within weeks for inoculations is one achievement — getting those reluctant to have the shot put into their arms is another hurdle, a problem known as vaccine hesitancy.
"All of us as individuals need to reach out to people who are hesitant in any way that we can, and then listen to what those person's concerns are, respond to them to try and make them comfortable and reassure that vaccination is safe," Schaffner, a past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told VOA.
More than 150 million shots have been administered in the United States, according to the White House, which states that "nearly a third of the total U.S. population and about 40% of the adult population has received at least one dose, and nearly one-fifth of the total population is fully vaccinated" with one of the three vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
The new eligibility date in two weeks will give all adults a chance then to schedule appointments for their shots at community health centers, pharmacies, drive-through vaccination sites in parking lots and elsewhere.
The coronavirus has killed more than 555,000 people in the United States and sickened nearly 30.8 million, the highest reported number by any country.
"This has been a long and difficult journey for the American public," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier Tuesday, cautioning against mass public gatherings. "We need to hang together. We need to remain vigilant."
The United States "pretty soon" will have enough doses to share with the rest of the world, Biden said to inoculators during his visit the Virginia vaccination site.
"We need to solve it around the world," explained the president. "You can't build a wall or a fence high enough to keep out the virus."
Other countries have appealed for help from Washington for doses of the vaccine, but the Biden administration has repeatedly stated its initial priority is making sure Americans get inoculated.
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.