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100 million doses and several grains of salt

At some point on Friday, someone, somewhere, received the one hundred millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine given in the United States since President Biden took office. It’s a moment worth celebrating, and the Biden administration is doing exactly that, trumpeting that the president met his goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days — a full 42 days ahead of his deadline of April 30.

“It was considered ambitious,” Biden said in an early victory speech on Thursday. “Some even suggested it was somewhat audacious. Experts said … the plan was, quote, ‘definitely aggressive,’ and distribution would have to be ‘seamless’ for us to be successful.”

But while reaching 100 million doses is great news for the country, it’s also true that Biden is overselling what was, all along, a more modest and attainable goal than he let on. It seems clear now that the president low-balled the 100 million benchmark for an easy political win. It’s not too late, though, to set the bar much higher.

When Biden initially announced his plan for “at least” 100 million doses during his first 100 days in early December, the Pfizer vaccine hadn’t even received regulatory approval in the United States yet. Supply concerns abounded, but experts told The New York Times that Biden’s goal seemed “optimistic,” though also “achievable.” Others, though, were much harsher in their assessment of the plan, noting that Biden’s team used wishy-washy language — the vague 100 million doses, rather than vaccinations for 100 million people — and skewered the goal as too conservative, barely an improvement on the outgoing Trump administration’s vaccination rates. As Vox reported at the time of his inauguration, if the U.S. actually tracked with Biden’s humble goal, it could be “as late as 2022” for the country to reach herd immunity, the point at which epidemiologists say it will safe to go back to life as normal. CNN specifically called out Biden’s plan as “too modest and good politics.” The Washington Post blasted him for sticking to goals “nearly met by his predecessor.”

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In fact, meeting the 100 million doses mark 42 days early may be less indicative of a masterful rollout by Biden than it is meeting an extremely low bar for good governance. Remember, Biden was inheriting a disastrously lacking vaccination distribution plan that involved Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar walking back his estimation that we’d have 100 million doses by the end of 2020, to 40 million doses, and then to 20 million (the Trump administration fell “well short” of even that goal). Biden’s promise of 100 million was conservative, but it was also safe: he didn’t know what he was being handed. By January, however, Biden seemed to admit 1 million doses per day wouldn’t be enough to curb the pandemic, while some vaccine scientists were offering 300 million doses as a better goal.

This knock isn’t just on the fact that Biden set himself up for an easy political win. The celebration on Friday of the 100 millionth dose ignores, also, the distribution of the doses, which, as the COVID Tracking Project pointed out on Thursday, remains worryingly unequal. In Michigan, for example, only 28 percent of Black residents over the age of 65 have received their first dose of the vaccine, compared to a nationwide rate of 66 percent; meanwhile, hospitalizations in the state are spiking again. Dr. Anthony Fauci even tempered reaching the 100 million benchmark this week with language similar to what he frequently used to curb Trump’s claims, telling NBC News that infection rates are “much too high to be declaring victory” just yet.

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The U.S. also lags behind Israel, Chile, the U.A.E., and the U.K. on doses for every 100 residents. The U.K. in particular is worth looking at, because it’s adopted a strategy of maximizing partial immunization, getting out as many first doses as possible, instead of holding back second doses to assure there’s enough supply a month later for the next shot, as we do in the U.S. But it’s a rollout that appears to have few medical downsides; “based on the current evidence … Britain appears to have landed on the most effective vaccination strategy,” The New York Times writes. Though the Times notes that switching strategies in the U.S. at this point might cause more confusion, it’s this kind of ambitious thinking that the 100 million doses goal feels like it was lacking.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with celebrating the 100 million doses; it’s a wonderfully optimistic moment to be living through. But Biden should have taken the opportunity of reaching his goal 42 days early by setting a new, more meaningful one to noticeably improve on where we’re at now — especially since Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are expected to produce enough vaccine for all Americans to receive their shots within 30 days of Biden’s true 100-day goal. Now’s the time to aim high.

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Biden, naturally, has been combative over the suggestion that his 100 million doses goal was lacking. “Come on, give me a break, man,” he told a reporter who once raised the question of if it would be enough. “It’s a good start.”