President Joe Biden on Tuesday received his updated COVID-19 booster shot on Tuesday, unveiling his administration’s latest efforts to encourage Americans to do the same and calling for the country to "start fresh" in this new phase of the pandemic.
Biden painted the shots as Americans' best bet to stay safe from the virus this fall and winter, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
"We're here with a simple message: get vaccinated," he said. "Not enough people are getting it. We've got to change that."
According to the White House, over 20 million Americans have received a dose of the updated booster shot, including nearly 1 in 5 seniors. Yet that's a small percentage of the near 227 million people who finished their first series of vaccine.
Health officials have urged Americans to bolster their protections against respiratory illnesses amid fears of a possible winter COVID-19 surge, a potentially severe flu season and an early surge of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, particularly in children.
Biden warned that the COVID-19 virus is "constantly changing," before getting his updated booster shot in his left arm.
"Can we repeat what happened in the last winters? More infections? More hospitalizations?" he asked. "Or can we have a much better winter, if we use all – all – the tools we have available to us now?"
"This year, nearly every death is preventable," the president later added.
The new bivalent vaccines target both the original coronavirus strain and the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which account for nearly 75% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the CDC. Bivalent boosters are available for Americans five years of age and older who have completed their first vaccine course.
President Biden tested positive for COVID-19 more than three months ago, the amount of time public health experts recommend waiting before getting a booster shot. He received his second booster shot in March of this year.
Health officials have urged Americans to use the free COVID tools still available to them, even as things like mass vaccination sites and government-shipped tests have ended.
In an interview with Spectrum News, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator, pointed out that vaccines are still free and available at 70,000 locations such as pharmacies, doctors offices and community health centers.
"We are trying to make sure it is widely available, easily accessible," he said. "And of course it remains completely free to people, so that combination should continue to allow people to get vaccinated relatively easily."
He added that other fall illnesses circulating are also preventable.
"We've got COVID, got flu, got RSV," Jha said. "The good news here is we're not powerless, right? Like we actually have a lot of control here."
The president echoed that optimism, calling on people to prioritize their health over partisan opinions about COVID.
"As we enter this new moment in the battle against COVID, let's use it to start fresh as a country," he said. "We've already lost over one million Americans to COVID .... We can do so much now to reduce the number people who die from this terrible disease."
The president pointed to new efforts aimed at getting more Americans updated COVID-19 boosters. He also called on local, community, state, education and business leaders to encourage their communities to stay protected and give people time to do so.
One such initiative is a new advertising blitz launched by the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes, per the White House:
New national and local TV, radio and print advertisements geared at reaching Black and Latino audiences, in both English and Spanish;
Football and country music-themed radio spots aimed at reaching rural communities;
Print, radio, digital and social ads aimed at reaching Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander audiences, in seven languages, and;
Ads on Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat and Twitter
HHS will also launch the "VaxUpAmerica Family Vaccine Tour," where the agency will work with national and community-based organizations to reach families and host pop-up vaccination events, distributing toolkits at venues such as Head Start provider locations, nursing homes and community health centers."
Biden also mentioned new private partnerships, including that pharmacy giant Walgreens is teaming up with delivery service companies Uber and DoorDash to provide free delivery of prescriptions of Paxlovid, Pfizer's oral antiviral COVID-19 treatment, to people living in underserved communities.
The White House also announced incentives from pharmacies to encourage Americans to get boosted, including:
Albertsons: 10% off groceries (up to $20 off) for those who get their COVID-19 vaccine in-store;
CVS Health: $5 off any purchase of $20, in-store or online, for customers getting an updated COVID-19 shot;
Rite Aid: Coupons for $5 off a $25 purchase for those getting an updated COVID-19 booster (not available in New York or New Jersey), and;
Southeastern Grocers (parent company of Harveys, Winn-Dixie and Fresco y Más supermarkets): Offers for $20 in free groceries when a customer gets an updated COVID-19 shot and a flu shot at the same time