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Biden faults Trump’s vaccine rollout as he cites total covid death toll

“He [President Donald Trump] did not move on making sure that we dealt with vaccinating the American public. We ended up losing over a million people dead — a million people.”

— President Biden, during a speech to a conference of the National Association of Counties, Feb. 12

“We vaccinated America. People were dying. We lost over 1,200,000 people because of the slow start in all this process.”

— Biden, during a fundraiser in Henderson, Nev., Feb. 4

“You know, I think we underestimate the impact that the failure to respond to the covid crisis quickly enough had on the psyche of the American people. … You had over a million people dying — a million people dying, and we had trouble at the front end of realizing there wasn’t much done to deal with it. And we ramped up rapidly, vaccinations and the like.”

— Biden, speaking to reporters, Jan. 12

“We vaccinated America to get through that pandemic. Less than 2 million people were vaccinated when we came into office. Today, 270 million Americans have gotten that coronavirus vaccine.”

— Biden, during a fundraising event in Juniper, Fla., Jan. 30

After President Biden took office, he would often misleadingly claim that the Trump administration had vaccinated relatively few Americans during the coronavirus pandemic compared to the Biden administration. But this was inaccurate framing.

When Biden became president, vaccinations had been available for a little over a month. Health-care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, front-line essential workers and people over the age of 75 were first in line. By the time Biden took office, on Jan. 20, 2021, with a stated goal of reaching 1 million vaccinations a day, shots had reached a seven-day average of more than 1 million a day — and 19 million people had been vaccinated, 10 times the number Biden used last month.

In recent weeks, Biden has expanded this long-standing talking point to include the total number of dead from the pandemic. To some ears, he seems to be blaming Trump for the total covid death toll. The New York Post editorial page called it a “vile lie,” and some readers complained to The Fact Checker. But Biden’s phrasing is sufficiently subtle that a link is not so easily established. A White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Biden was not trying to blame Trump for the deaths and said that his comments reflected reporting that criticized Trump’s vaccine rollout effort and noted Biden’s pledge to ramp up testing.

Trump can certainly be faulted for a chaotic, nonscientific approach to the pandemic. Two of our colleagues wrote an excellent best-selling book, “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History,” that detailed many missteps, including a failure to take the pandemic seriously from the start, inconsistent messaging on shutdowns and distancing, and a shunning of masks. But his administration’s successful push for a vaccine in less than a year, dubbed Operation Warp Speed, is considered a success story.

In February 2020, as the pandemic appeared to be headed our way, Anthony S. Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters that a vaccine “would not be applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half.” But in the end an effective vaccine was approved by November, just eight months later. By Dec. 8, the first vaccines outside a trial were given to people.

At that point, 300,000 people in the United States had died of covid. The vaccines do not prevent people from getting covid but they significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.

As regular readers know, we generally avoid compiling data by presidential term, as broad economic, crime or medical trends are often beyond a president’s control. The worst month for covid deaths in the United States was January 2021 — 105,565, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and Biden was president for 10 days of that month. As there are not precise day-to-day death counts, we will assign one-third of the death toll that month to Biden’s term.

Nearly 1.2 million people have died of covid in the United States, according to the CDC. This is the death toll by year since the pandemic emerged in full force in March 2020.

2020: 385,6662021: 463,2622022: 246,1612023: 72,8272024: 10,611 (to date)

By presidential term, that means:

Trump: 465,043 (39 percent)Biden: 713,484 (61 percent)

But notice how Biden frames this:

“He [Trump] did not move on making sure that we dealt with vaccinating the American public. We ended up losing over a million people dead — a million people.”“We lost over 1,200,000 people because of the slow start in all this process.”“You had over a million people dying — a million people dying, and we had trouble at the front end of realizing there wasn’t much done to deal with it.”

As we noted, the vaccine was created in record time — a fact that Biden at times has credited to Trump. “Thanks to the prior administration and our scientific community, America was one of the first countries to get the vaccine,” he said in 2021.

But now when he mentions Trump and vaccines, he also references the total dead, even though Trump has been out of office for three years.

With some justification, the Biden team can claim the Trump administration did not leave behind much of a national strategy beyond vaccinating health-care workers and people living in long-term care facilities, both of whom were at fixed sites where they could receive vaccines. Trump more than 20 times promised 100 million doses would be delivered by the end of 2020 — a goal his administration badly failed to meet.

The Biden administration came up with ways to provide states with resources to deliver vaccines — which Trump had resisted — and to prevent states from hoarding doses. The new administration also fleshed out details of a national plan that had remained vague under Trump.

For instance, the Trump administration had announced a plan to vaccinate people through pharmacies. When Biden officials asked pharmacy officials about how it would work, pharmacy executives responded that they knew little beyond what was in the initial news release. The Biden administration then developed a plan to distribute the vaccines through 40,000 pharmacies.

Fauci, who stayed on with the Biden administration, on Feb. 16, 2021, told CNN that the Trump vaccine distribution program “was not a well-coordinated plan. Getting the vaccines made, getting them shipped through Operation Warp Speed was okay.” But, now, he said the Biden administration was “actually getting these doses into people. That is something that we had to get much better organized now with getting the community vaccine centers, getting the pharmacies involved, getting mobile units involved.”

The Biden team had success, but the death toll kept rising, in part because a limited supply of vaccine (as a result of a Trump administration decision) meant a prioritized rollout was necessary. By March 4, 2021, 100 million doses had been delivered, the CDC data shows. (Total deaths: 545,000.) The seven-day moving average reached 3.5 million a day by April 12. (Total deaths: 570,000.) Within a year of Biden taking office, about 250 million people had received at least one dose. (Total deaths: 905,000.)

But then the effort stalled as more people refused to get vaccinated. Less than 70 percent of the U.S. population completed the primary series of shots, the CDC says, among the lowest results in the United States peer group of industrialized nations. The takeup of the bivalent booster dose was worse — 17 percent. A study published this week in Nature said political affiliation, “defined by voting rates for Donald Trump in the 2020 election,” was the strongest variable that affected coronavirus vaccine uptake.

The White House official who said Biden was not trying to blame Trump for the deaths supplied articles reporting that the Trump administration in 2020 lacked a plan to combat vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. The official said the importance of early vaccination was underscored by a 2023 study in the European Journal of Epidemiology that estimated 232,000 deaths among unvaccinated adults in the United States could have been prevented from May 30, 2021, to Sept. 3, 2022, if they had been vaccinated.

The federal government, of course, was only one part of a nationwide effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines. States played an important role in distributing vaccines and encouraging people to take them, with most states falling below the national average for being fully vaccinated, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

Trump, who became seriously ill with covid during his presidency after rarely wearing a mask, has remained proud of the vaccine even though his right-wing base turned skeptical and dismissive of the achievement.

“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind,” he said in 2022. “The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t do the vaccine, but it’s still their choice. And if you take the vaccine, you’re protected, the results of the vaccine are good.”

Trump made the remarks after he was booed by an audience for revealing he had received a booster shot. A campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden leans too heavily into suggesting the U.S. death toll is so high because Trump did not leave behind a fully formed national vaccine plan. After all, Trump did leave behind a vaccine, against expectations when the pandemic started.

Even with a successful vaccine rollout steered by the Biden administration, more people in the United States have died of covid under Biden than Trump. Whatever “slow start” Biden inherited from Trump was quickly overcome — though vaccine skepticism on the right led many Americans to shun the vaccine.

By mentioning the covid death toll in the same breath as denouncing Trump’s vaccine distribution, Biden seems to be subtly connecting the two — while avoiding any blame for deaths that occurred on his watch.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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