Two weeks after celebrating America’s near “independence” from the coronavirus, President Joe Biden is confronting the worrying reality of rising cases and deaths — and the limitations of his ability to combat the persistent vaccine hesitance responsible for the summer backslide.

Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. While the rates are still sharply down from their January highs, officials are concerned by the reversing trendlines and what they consider needless illness and death. And cases are expected to continue to rise in coming weeks.

While the national emergency may have faded, officials say the outbreak is now a more localized crisis in communities where not enough people have rolled up their sleeves.

“Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said Friday, echoing comments made earlier in the day by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rising numbers are being driven by large pockets of infection among the more than 90 million eligible Americans who have yet to get shots. Just four states with low vaccination rates made up 40% of new cases last week, and nearly half of them came from Florida alone.

However, there is little appetite in the White House for a return to broad mandates for masks or other measures, as 161 million Americans are already fully vaccinated.

Reflecting that mindset, Walensky said Friday that in low-vaccination areas with rising cases, “local policymakers might consider whether masking at that point would be something that would be helpful for their community.”

Some communities are acting. Los Angeles County on Thursday reinstituted its requirement that masks be worn in most indoor settings regardless of vaccination status, and health officials in Las Vegas recommended on Friday that workers and patrons in the tourism hotspot wear face coverings while inside.

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With three highly effective vaccines authorized for use in the U.S., the Biden administration believes the most effective way to attack the virus is not trying to slow the spread with mass masking and such — something the U.S. showed it was not very good at last year — but to continue to press the importance of vaccinations.

It’s no easy fix. Many Americans remain resistant or unmotivated to get shots, despite months of often-creative efforts by federal and state officials and the private sector to spread information about vaccine safety and accessibility.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy added that while government can play an important role, “this has got to be an ‘all of the above’ strategy with everybody in,” including schools, employers, technology companies and individuals.

In recent days, the administration has turned its focus to younger Americans. It enlisted pop star Olivia Rodrigo for a day-long White House visit Wednesday with Biden and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci that was heavily documented for social media. Younger people are at lowest risk of adverse outcomes from the virus and have proven to be among the least likely to get …read more

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