President Joe Biden’s urgent goal of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic depends heavily on persuading Americans to get the vaccine as quickly as possible and educating the public about the virus — and his top aides have been eyeing this weekend’s Super Bowl as an opportunity to score some points.
The President and first lady Jill Biden have taped a video message thanking healthcare workers that will be shown before the game, according to a source familiar with the plans. An administration official told CNN that the White House also hoped to use this Sunday’s event to combat vaccine hesitancy and speak to the African American, Latino and white, rural “non-mask wearing” communities in particular. The Super Bowl presents “an interesting opportunity to reach all three of those audiences,” the official said.
The White House has been in touch with the NFL and other brands involved in the Super Bowl on ways to integrate pro-mask and pro-vaccine messaging in the highly watched event, one White House official said. They declined to elaborate further on the extent of the White House’s collaboration with the league or specific companies.
The Super Bowl weekend messaging strategy is a part of a wide-reaching national campaign the Biden administration is trying to develop to urge responsible behavior and encourage Americans to receive the Covid vaccine when it is their turn. It has consulted with behavioral economists and messaging strategists, an administration official said, and is continually monitoring polls around the issue. Biden’s top aides have also been brainstorming individuals trusted by the public — including some celebrities — who might be able to help spread their message in the future.
This comes as Biden’s overwhelming concern in recent days when being briefed by his top health advisers has centered around questions about both the speed and reach of the Covid vaccines, the official said.
“Tell it to me straight. How fast can we go? How fast can we get people?” is how the official described some of the most urgent questions the President asks his top Covid advisers. “How can we get it to everybody — not just the easy people?”
Notably, Biden struck an optimistic tone in public last week when he said he was hopeful that the United States could be administering 1.5 million vaccine shots per day in a matter of weeks. His previously stated goal was to get 1 million shots into arms per day for the first 100 days of his presidency. Biden also said that anyone who wants a vaccine would be able to get one by this spring — a more ambitious timeline than some of his top health officials had previously projected.
At the time, his aides insisted that the White House’s official goal remained administering 1 million shots per day, and that Biden was simply expressing his hope that there would be “greater availability” of vaccines by springtime. An administration official told CNN that Biden’s Covid team had not planned on the President publicly sharing those specific aspirations.
“He expects it to go up,” the official said about the number of vaccinations administered daily. “He’s pushing and hoping.”
As of Thursday, more than 35 million doses of the Covid vaccine had been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with some 6.9 million people having received two doses of the vaccine.
In a public briefing on Wednesday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged Americans to watch Sunday’s game responsibly.
“Remember — whichever team you’re rooting for and whichever commercial is your favorite, please watch the Super Bowl safely, gathering only virtually or with the people you live with,” Walensky said.
The NFL, for its part, has consulted with public health officials in preparation for the weekend, and announced a set of protocols including mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid at this weekend’s game. It has also invited around 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to the game to honor their ongoing work during the pandemic. According to the NFL, some 14,500 people will be in attendance through general admission, and another 2,700 fans in stadium suites.
“We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Sources told ESPN that coaches and players for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will be tested twice a day before the Sunday game.
Goodell also wrote to Biden in a letter Thursday that every NFL team would make its stadium available for mass vaccination of the public. The Biden administration has said developing such vaccination sites will be a major part of its push to ramp up the pace of Covid vaccinations.
Joe Lockhart, a veteran of the Clinton administration who also served as chief spokesman for the National Football League, said the Super Bowl was a “singular event” in American culture that provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to capture an audience.
“There’s nothing else like it. There’s no other place to sell your cars or educate the public,” Lockhart said. “So, I think it’s an enormous opportunity for the public health community to get their message out including the White House.”
The White House has long made clear that combating vaccine hesitancy by addressing concerns among Americans about whether the Covid vaccines are safe and effective is a top priority in fighting the pandemic.
That effort has become all the more urgent with variants of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa popping up across the United States. Biden’s top health officials have stressed in recent days that the best way to stop the spread of the new variants is to vaccinate the American public as quickly as possible.
Another upcoming challenge for the Biden administration is the expected approval of a third vaccine for use in the United States from Johnson & Johnson. Trials have shown that that the single-dose vaccine has a lower level of efficacy than the two already being administered in the US — made by Moderna and Pfizer — and the administration is trying to temper potential skepticism about whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worth taking.
“You need to get vaccinated when it becomes available as quickly and as expeditiously as possible,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week. “You stop their replication by vaccinating widely… When the vaccine becomes available to you, please get vaccinated.”
The administration will also need to make sure that there is eventually enough vaccine supply to allow them to significantly ramp up the pace of getting shots into arms — specifically, to meet the goal of fully vaccinating nearly the entire US population by the end of summer or early fall. Biden announced last week the purchase of 200 million more vaccine doses.
Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris received their Covid vaccines in recent weeks in front of cameras in an effort to help fight vaccine hesitancy.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a recent press briefing that many celebrities have offered their help in publicly speaking out about the safety of the Covid vaccines.
“Great. We welcome that,” Psaki said. “But what’s interesting in the data is that local doctors and local officials — you know, people from the community — are people who are most often most trusted, and so we’re really trying to empower and be able to fund local communities to be able to be the spokespeople to build that trust.”