President Biden Tuesday confirmed what had become apparent in recent days, that the country would miss his stated target of having 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4. The announcement came on the same day Governor Charlie Baker declared that Massachusetts had finally hit its goal of 4.1 million inoculated adults.
The divergent results at the national and state level paint yet another portrait of two Americas, as vaccination rates have dropped off nationally over the last month despite vaccines becoming more available.
In announcing that the milestone was reached in Massachusetts, Baker praised medical workers on the front lines of the vaccination effort.
“This is thanks to the hard work of health care workers and vaccine clinic volunteers, and to the people of MA for getting vaccinated. Our goal remains getting everyone who wants a vaccine one,” Baker wrote on Twitter late Tuesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Massachusetts reported just 33 new infections and a single death from the virus, with the seven-day average of cases inching below the low levels of summer 2020.
Nationally, the United States surpassed 150 million fully vaccinated on Monday, and the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, projected it will take several more weeks to reach the president’s goal of 165 million. The White House pointed out the country has reached the 70 percent threshold among people over the age of 30 and is expected to meet it for those over 27 by July 4.
“We don’t see it exactly like something went wrong,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Still, the ebbing pace of vaccination comes as epidemiologists warn that the fast-spreading Delta variant of the virus will almost certainly increase cases later this year.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have met the 70 percent target, Zients said. Vermont appears to have the highest percent of its population inoculated, slightly above Massachusetts, while Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, and Alabama all have less than 50 percent of their populations with at least one dose of vaccine.
The unvaccinated tend to be younger, with fewer than 50 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds, and 18- to 24-year-olds without an inoculation, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention; by contrast, nearly 90 percent of people ages 65 to 74 are vaccinated.
Administration officials said they were redoubling their focus on vaccinating younger Americans, who have proved to be least likely to get a vaccine when it’s available for them.
Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, said he does not see the US falling short as much of a setback.
“I’m glad the president set a lofty goal because it means that’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “Everyone in public health understood it was a goal and not necessarily an absolute number.”
Barocas said the national focus should be on pockets of the country with the lowest vaccination rates.
“The bigger question is what risk to everyone are these pockets of unvaccinated people? That’s unknown,” he said. “We’re risking the emergence of not just the Delta or Lambda variant, we’re going to see new variants until we get the national population, the domestic population, vaccinated. This calls for a global vaccination effort. This is something we all need to do.”
“The 70 percent goal was and remains a good one, and the fact that we haven’t reached it is a sign that there are still some vaccine reluctant or hesitant people out there who need to be reassured about the safety and efficacy,” said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Sax said it is “virtually certain” cases of COVID-19 will increase in the fall and winter. The goal, he said, is to keep those increases as small as possible.
Sax and others also hailed Massachusetts for reaching its milestone, but urged officials to remain vigilant for variants and any resurgence of the pandemic that has sickened hundreds of thousands and killed more than 17,000 people in the state.
“I’m very impressed with how well Massachusetts has done with its COVID-19 vaccinations, but want to emphasize that because of the seasonal nature of the virus, the summer might be giving us a false sense of security. Remember, cases were almost this low last summer and that was without vaccines,” Sax said.
The Delta variant, he added, is especially concerning. It is rapidly spreading in many locations and responsible for the sharp increase in cases in England, mostly in unvaccinated people.
Asked at a media briefing last week what his next goal would be once the state hit 4.1 million vaccinated people, Baker said, “More — the new number would be more.”
Citing the arrival of variants, he said the state would continue its campaign to administer more shots.
“The variants, I think, make this the kind of thing where we should do everything we can to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can and not stop,” he said.
Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former top federal and state public health official, suggested that if Baker were to set a new target, it “could help drive collective action toward even better outcomes.”
Koh suggested that the Baker administration could be “even more explicit about vaccine equity goals” to “reemphasize the critical message that we cannot be healthy unless everyone is healthy.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College, said Baker deserves “to be congratulated for his leadership” and said he does not expect another outbreak considering the state’s high vaccination rate.
“I agree with his sentiment that more is better,” Landrigan said in an e-mail. Until virtually everyone is vaccinated, he said, there will still be a slow, persistent spread of cases. “But I think it is safe to say that we have reached a point now where another explosive outbreak will not occur unless the virus drastically shifts.”
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician who is the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said it is not clear how much of an effect seasonality is having on the coronavirus and whether it might make a comeback in the fall and winter.
Variants, too, could cause trouble. “If you’re unvaccinated, you should be worried,” she said.
But vaccinated people appear, for the most part, to be protected and, with the state’s high vaccination rate, “I really don’t see us having a surge and overwhelmed hospitals again,” she said, while, “in pockets of the country with really low vaccination rates, it might be a different story.”
Baker has previously said Massachusetts needed to get to 4.1 million vaccinations to “reach herd immunity.” Doron said that while determining the herd immunity threshold is complicated, it’s inarguable that the state’s coronavirus numbers are declining substantially.
“It’s working, but we want to protect every single member of our population,” she said. “At this point, we’re trying to make sure no one gets left behind. Right now, it’s more about the individual than it is about herd immunity.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.