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A vaccine road trip: ‘Please do not enter without one!!’

A highway billboard in Las Vegas. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,”

Biden said yesterday.

But I came home from my trip shaken by what I had seen.

The Biden administration has a huge amount of work to do to get the virus under control.

I took a 1,600-mile road trip this week that has left me even more amazed at how poorly the United States has handled the coronavirus — and more worried about how much work the Biden administration has to do to get it under control. I want to tell you that story this morning.

The U.S. now faces two main virus problems. First, our efforts to minimize the virus’s spread remain halfhearted, with many Americans refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing. Second, the early stages of the mass vaccination campaign have been a mess, far behind schedule and full of frustration for people trying to get shots.

The second of those problems was the reason for my road trip. I live in the Washington, D.C., area, where the vaccine rollout has been even slower than in most places.

I hear maddening anecdotes from neighbors and friends all the time, and I imagine you’ve heard similar anecdotes. Many Americans who qualify to receive the vaccine — like people over 65 — don’t know what they are supposed to do to sign up. When they try, they often find that all the slots are filled.

Millions of doses, unused

My mom, who’s 74 and has been living with my family for the last few months, was one of the people trying to figure out how to get her shot. And it felt impossible. Fortunately, she had an alternative. She normally lives in Colorado, a state with a somewhat better vaccine rollout. By checking repeatedly online, she got an appointment in Colorado.

So the two of us got in the car and spent a couple of days driving west (to spare her the risk of contracting the virus on a plane). My sister, who lives in Denver, drove east, and we met halfway, in St. Louis. I then drove back to Washington, and my sister and my mom drove to Denver. We are all grateful that she is about to receive her first shot.

But it’s worth pausing to reflect on what an indictment of our society this story is. The world’s richest, most powerful country has almost 20 million vaccine doses that are sitting unused. Meanwhile, people are desperately trying to sign up — and often failing. Many families don’t have the resources or flexibility to make it a full-time project.

For some, the consequences of the bungled rollout will be fatal. More than 3,000 Americans a day have been dying from Covid-19 recently. Some of them would not have contracted the virus if the Trump administration and state governments had kept the vaccination program anywhere close to on schedule.

President Biden announced his plans yesterday for a “full-scale wartime effort” to speed things up — including the construction of mass-vaccination centers, the involvement of drugstores and an accelerated manufacturing program. You can read the details here, as explained by The Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg. How well Biden succeeds will help determine how many Americans survive this pandemic.

A store in Toledo, Ohio, in November. Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

‘Required’ and ignored

The other big factor will be how hard the country tries to reduce the virus’s spread while the vaccines are being rolled out. In the short term, masks and social distancing probably matter even more than vaccines.

“The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,”

Biden said yesterday.

But I came home from my trip shaken by what I had seen.

Almost everywhere I stopped — gas stations, rest stops and hotels, across Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois — there was a sign on the door saying that people had to wear masks to enter. And almost everywhere, most people ignored the sign.

At a Fairfield Inn in Ohio, a middle-aged couple sat unmasked on a lobby sofa for hours, drinking beers and scrolling through their phones. The hotel staff evidently did nothing about it.

“Face masks are required. Please do not enter without one!!”

At a convenience store in Indiana, a hand-drawn sign on the door read.

Customers did anyway.

Nationwide, about half of Americans are not wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households, according to a survey released yesterday by the University of Southern California.

Wearing a mask isn’t much fun. It’s hard to speak clearly, and if you wear glasses, the fogging is annoying. But the inconvenience sure seems worth the benefits.

Study after study has shown that masks reduce the virus’s spread. Yet millions of Americans have decided they would prefer more Covid — for their communities and potentially for their families and themselves — to more masks.

The persuasion problem

The Biden plan to accelerate vaccinations looks promising, many experts say. But the new president does not yet have a cohesive plan for changing Americans’ minds about safe behavior in the meantime. Repeating the same pleas, like Biden’s request that people wear masks for his first 100 days, seems no more likely to work than the signs I saw on my road trip.

What might work better? Perhaps a prime-time Oval Office address that’s light on policy and focused on a simple call to action. Or maybe the calls to action can come from a diverse array of celebrities, politicians and business executives. As behavioral psychologists often explain, the messenger can matter more than the message.

For now, I feel like I just drove across a country that is losing a winnable fight.

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