The White House is hosting a Fourth of July celebration — which will be the largest of Joe Biden’s presidency — in an effort to highlight the monumental strides the U.S. has made over the last 16 months toward ending the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the country is expected to fall just short of Biden’s goal of having 70% of U.S. adults with at least one dose of a vaccine, the planned celebration is meant to serve as a notable marker in the nation’s recovery and a symbol of having gained "independence from the virus."
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen dramatically, thanks to an expansive vaccination campaign. Air travel counts continue to soar, while schools, restaurants and other businesses are rapidly reopening.
Considering the progress, infectious disease experts say Americans have much to celebrate on July 4 — while continuing to focus on getting shots in arms to protect unvaccinated people from the fast-spreading delta variant.
"To me, the biggest sign that we’ve become independent of COVID-19 is the fact that when you walk through a hospital in June of 2021 it’s a very different picture than what it would have looked like in January of 2021," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"And that’s because so many of our high-risk individuals have been fully vaccinated and are no longer at risk for COVID-19," Adalja added.
In March, Biden held his first prime-time address on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic and laid out the goal of Americans being able to safely gather in at least in small groups for Independence Day. He urged people to roll up their sleeves to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it became available.
Nearly four months later, more than 154 million people are now fully vaccinated.
Over 66% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 57% are fully vaccinated, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. Furthermore, nearly 78% of adults 65 and older are now inoculated — an age group known to be high-risk for severe COVID-19.
The Biden administration is now focusing its vaccine messaging on some 55 million unvaccinated adults, many of them under 30.
The U.S. is still averaging about 11,300 new cases per day, CDC data shows — but that’s a 95.5% reduction since the highest peak on Jan. 10. There has also been an average of 287 COVID-19 deaths per day over the last seven days, compared to an average of 3,614 new daily COVID deaths in mid-January.
New hospital admissions for COVID-19 have also been steadily declining since April 19.
"You have to remember that flattening the curve was about preserving hospital capacity and that’s why our vaccine went to high-risk individuals first," Adalja said. "And I think we’ve accomplished that goal, that we won’t see COVID-19 be able to threaten us the way it could in the spring of 2020 or the winter of 2020-2021 because we’ve gotten so many people who are high-risk for hospitalization vaccinated — and I think that’s something to celebrate."
FILE - An American flag is displayed on the Huntington Beach pier on June 15, 2021, in Huntington Beach, California.
Despite the noted accomplishments over the past year, experts have stressed that the vaccination effort must continue in order to stem the pandemic globally and stop the rise of more troublesome variants of the coronavirus.
The highly transmissible delta variant, which was first detected in India, has now spread to at least 85 other countries. The B.1.617.2 strain already accounts for more than 20% of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S., having doubled in just two weeks, the CDC said on June 22.
Studies have shown that the vaccines currently available in the U.S. work against variants, including the delta variant, and current CDC guidelines broadly indicate those who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear masks.
But in areas with low vaccination rates, both in the U.S. and abroad, the delta variant poses a threat. Many countries still have low vaccination rates where supply is less plentiful.
The World Health Organization urged vaccinated people worldwide to continue wearing masks with the rise of the delta variant. Separately, health officials in Los Angeles County recommended that people wear masks indoors in public places regardless of their vaccination status.
In response, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday stood by the CDC’s guidelines and said the agency is leaving it up to regional officials to set guidelines for mask-wearing — based on local transmission and vaccination rates.
Walensky added in an interview with ABC’s "Good Morning America" that the "context in which the WHO is making recommendations is very different than us here in the United States" since less than 15% of the world is vaccinated.
Experts have also noted the difference in the efficacy of vaccines being used worldwide.
"The WHO is speaking to all the countries of the world and not all vaccines are equal," Adalja said. "We know, for example, that the Chinese-made vaccines may not have the same level of efficacy as the Moderna, the Pfizer, the Johnson & Johnson or the Astrazeneca vaccines. So that may be more reflective of that phenomenon rather than the fact that this is something that all vaccinated individuals should do."
Adalja continued, speaking about the majority of Americans: "If you’re somebody that’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19, I do not think that you need to take any special precautions because of the delta variant."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said earlier this month had he believed regionalized areas will see spikes of COVID-19 based on low vaccination rates, but that the country likely won’t see another "wave" of infections and hospitalizations.
For the White House’s upcoming July 4th celebration, Biden is looking to celebrate the holiday as America looking "like America again." He plans to host more than 1,000 military service members and frontline workers and their families on the South Lawn for a cookout and to watch the fireworks over the National Mall.
"We are entering a summer of joy, a summer of freedom," White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said. "This is cause for celebration, and that’s exactly what Americans will be able to do on July 4th: celebrate independence from the virus."
This story was reported from Cincinnati.