President Joe Biden is coming to Raleigh on Thursday to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations as the rate of daily inoculations has slowed across the country and in North Carolina.
The presidential visit marks Biden’s first trip to North Carolina since taking office, and comes at a crucial time in his administration’s months-long effort to get 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have already reached Biden’s goal, but the country as a whole and several other states continue to lag.
As of June 22, roughly 65% of adults nationwide have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In North Carolina, that number is even lower, at just 55%, per the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
On Tuesday, the White House acknowledged it does not expect to meet Biden’s goal of partially inoculating 70% of adults by July 4. Jeffrey Zients, the head of the administration’s COVID-19 response team, said during a press briefing Tuesday that while the U.S. has partially vaccinated 70% of adults over the age of 30, and expects to reach that goal for adults over the age of 27 by July 4, “it’ll take a few extra weeks to get to 70% of all adults with at least one shot.”
The challenge at this stage in the vaccination drive is to convince young Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 to get vaccinated, Zients said. “Many younger Americans have felt like COVID-19 is not something that impacts them and they’ve been less eager to get the shot,” he said.
In North Carolina, the weekly rate of vaccinations has dropped by 83% since reaching a peak of 687,369 shots administered during the week of April 5. During the week of June 14, North Carolina administered only 114,987 vaccine doses. At the current pace of vaccinations, North Carolina isn’t expected to meet Biden’s goal until November, The News & Observer previously reported.
The White House hasn’t yet announced where and when Biden will be on Thursday.
Biden’s focus on NC
Biden’s decision to devote his time and attention to North Carolina is significant, but the president probably won’t have “a huge impact” on turning around the state’s declining vaccination rate, said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
“The kinds of people who might be swayed by a Joe Biden visit, a visit from a Democratic president, most likely have already been vaccinated,” Cooper said in an interview. “I think the key to increasing North Carolina’s vaccination rate is public visits from Republicans. If Donald Trump were to come and really give a full-throated endorsement of vaccinations, I think that would have a larger impact on the overall numbers.”
Cooper pointed to an April poll from Elon University which showed that 28% of Republicans said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine. For Democrats, that number was just 9%.
“Partisanship is certainly not a perfect predictor and there are many, many Republicans that have been vaccinated, but it is a cleavage that does matter, and Biden’s visit is unlikely to sway those folks,” Cooper said.
Another study conducted by the nonprofit group Surgo Ventures between February and April asked North Carolinians if they had been vaccinated, and if not, what had stopped them. Roughly 50% of North Carolinians had not been vaccinated when Surgo compiled its data in May. The group estimated approximately 14% of the total were enthusiastic about getting the vaccine, 10% were worried about the time or financial cost involved with getting their shot, and 9% had concerns about vaccine safety and effectiveness.
A further 14.5% could be classified as COVID skeptics, or those North Carolinians who were least likely to get vaccinated and possibly believed in pandemic conspiracy theories, Surgo said. The group determined COVID skeptics are most often Republicans and live in rural areas.
Introduction of incentives
To address the dwindling rate of vaccinations, state health officials have in recent weeks unveiled a variety of financial incentives, including a $1 million cash jackpot to be given to four randomly selected North Carolinians who have been vaccinated. The state is also offering four $125,000 college scholarships, and more modest $25 Summer Cards for adults who get vaccinated or drive someone to get their shot.
The $25 rewards, which began as a pilot program last month in just four counties, are being expanded to vaccination sites across 38 counties starting this week, DHHS announced Tuesday.
Gov. Roy Cooper said last week North Carolina has not yet seen a significant uptick in vaccinations since it announced the $1 million lottery on June 10. That has been the case with similar drawings implemented in other states, according to Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at UNC Gillings School of Public Health who advised state officials on the rollout of North Carolina’s million-dollar lottery.
The smaller incentives, on the other hand, appear to be effective in “helping slow the rate of decline of vaccinations nationally and in our state,” Brewer said in an interview.
He said Biden’s visit to North Carolina could help raise the public profile of the vaccination process, including the expanded availability of shots at more sites across the state, and the financial incentives the state is offering. But, he said, it’s important for Biden use this opportunity to speak to all North Carolinians, and refrain from engaging in any partisan politics.
“If President Biden comes to visit as the president of our entire country, we’re going to be in good shape,” Brewer said. “But if he’s going to come and visit and be the head of the Democratic Party, it’s going to not be helpful at all. No one currently needs to hear from him on political issues when it comes to vaccination.”
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