Joe Biden has directed states to make all American adults eligible for coronavirus vaccines by 1 May and set an audacious goal of 4 July for gatherings to celebrate “independence” from the deadly pandemic.
But in his first prime-time address, which marked the anniversary of America’s shutdown, the president warned that restrictions could be reinstated if the nation lets down its guard against the virus.
“Tonight, I’m announcing that I will direct all states, tribes and territories to make all adults – people 18 and over – eligible to be vaccinated no later than 1 May,” Biden said in the east room of the White House. “That’s much earlier than expected.”
He went on to make clear that this does not mean every person can get their shot in the arm by then but they will at least be able to join a waiting list. It signified the growing confidence of an administration that Biden said remains on “a war footing to get the job done”.
The president said his target of 100m vaccine doses in his first 100 days has already been exceeded, with the US now on track to achieve that figure on his 60th day.
In a 24-minute speech that carefully balanced caution and optimism, Biden also announced that the federal government will create a website before 1 May to help people find vaccination sites and schedule appointments. He promised he would “not relent” until the virus is beaten but he needs every American to “do their part”.
He then offered a tangible target with emotional resonance: “If we do this together, by July the fourth there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your back yard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate independence day.”
He added: “After this long hard year, that will make this independence day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”
Trump was frequently criticised last year for setting wildly optimistic dates for reopening businesses and schools. With many states already lifting restrictions again, Biden was at pains to say the fight is far from over. “Because if we don’t stay vigilant and the conditions change and we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track,” he warned. “Please, we don’t want to do that again. We’ve made so much progress. This is not the time to let up.”
Wearing a black mask, dark suit, white shirt, striped tie and white handkerchief in his breast pocket, Biden walked up a red carpet flanked by flags to make the address – the first on live television from the east room since Donald Trump falsely claimed election victory at 2.20am on 4 November.
In remarks that were rooted in empathy and appeared to include some ad libs, the president took some shots towards his predecessor’s downplaying of the virus and dithering over mask wearing – though he did not mention by Trump by name.
“A year ago, we were hit with a virus that was met with silence and spread unchecked, denials for days, weeks, then months,” Biden said. “That led to more deaths, more infections, more stress and more loneliness. Photos and videos from 2019 feel like they were taken in another era. The last vacation, the last birthday with friends, the last holiday with extended family.
“While it was different for everyone, we all lost something – a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us. But in the loss, we saw how much there was to gain in appreciation, respect, and gratitude. Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it may be the most American thing we do.”
Biden reached into his pocket and took out a card on which he keeps a running total of the virus death toll. He said 527,726 Americans had lost their lives to it as of Thursday night. “That’s more deaths than in world war one, world war two, the Vietnam war and 9/11 combined.”
Early White House projections based on expert modeling had suggested that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the virus.
Biden, whose own life has been scarred by tragedy, also reflected on the impact of job losses, business closures, evictions and children going a year without attending school. “It’s the details of life that matter the most, and we miss those details, the big details and the small moments, weddings, birthdays, graduations, all of the things that needed to happen but didn’t.
“The first date, the family reunions, the Sunday night rituals. It’s all has exacted a terrible cost on the psyche of so many of us … The things we used to do that always filled us with joy have become things we couldn’t do and broke our hearts.”
The president condemned the partisanship that has hurt America’s pandemic response and led to racist violence. “Too often, we’ve turned against one another. A mask, the easiest thing to do to save lives, sometimes it divides us. States pitted against one another instead of working with each other. Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.”
Biden did not acknowledge the previous administration’s investment in Operation Warp Speed to produce vaccines, a sore point among Trump alumni. Kayleigh McEnany, a former White House press secretary, tweeted: “Even the media acknowledges the Trump administration’s role in spearheading vaccine development and procurement … but President Biden REFUSES to say the truth.”
Biden spoke hours after signing a $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill passed by Democrats in Congress with no Republican votes. Striking another positive note, he said: “After long, dark years, one whole year, there is light and hope of better days ahead if we all do our part. This country will be vaccinated soon. Our economy will be on the mend. Our kids will be back in school.”