US coronavirus: The US is facing one of its biggest vaccination challenges yet, Surgeon General says

“Because we had so much success early on, we are now getting to the part of the campaign which is tougher,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said “We’ve got to look further, if you will — convince more people, get to the right information, increase access even further.”

So far, more than half of the population has gotten at least one dose of vaccine and 12 states have reached President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of Americans getting at least one dose by July 4.

And as vaccinations have gone up, cases of the virus have gone down. Ensemble forecasts published Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project that newly reported Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths will likely continue to decrease over the next four weeks.

The early success is helpful in keeping large swaths of the nation protected — but reaching the levels that will stop community spread will take a change in strategy, Murthy said.

Current vaccination rates have begun tapering off — and are now less than a third of the peak pace of about 3.3 million per day in April.

“This is a multi-pronged campaign recognizing that people have different reasons that they’re not vaccinated right now, but we have to work on all three fronts: mobilization, education and improving access,” said Murthy. “That’s how we’re going to get the nation vaccinated.”

The July 4 goal is realistic — if people don’t get complacent that is, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an NBC Nightly News interview.

Cautions against complacency

Meanwhile, many Americans have begun removing their masks as states lift mandates in response to the rising vaccinations rates and the decline in cases.

But CNN Medical Correspondent Leana Wen warned that after Memorial Day weekend, the US is still two weeks away from seeing the results of its first stress test, given that almost half of the country remains unvaccinated.

Even if cases plateau or taper off from their current falling rate, Wen said she worries some communities will remain vulnerable.

“You have parts of the country with very low vaccination rates,” she said. “I really worry about the unvaccinated people in those areas spreading coronavirus to one another.”

Fauci also said he’s worried about communities that are experiencing a high levels of spread. He told NBC News that it is too early to lift mask mandates in those areas.

“If you pull back on masking, then you’re going to wind up having a danger of peaking again” he said.

The CDC considers a county to have “high” transmission if there have been 100 or more cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher in the past seven days. The CDC says that significant mitigation strategies may be needed in areas where there is large scale, community transmission, including in communal settings, like schools and workplaces.

Vaccinations at hair salons and free drinks

Officials are hoping that making vaccines more accessible will help get 70% of the population vaccinated.

As part of a White House initiative, the National Association of County and City Health Officials is planning to help train Black-owned barber shops and hair salons to provide accurate vaccination information and even provide vaccines where possible, Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of NACCHO, told CNN on Wednesday.

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And states are rolling out new incentives to vaccinate the population.

In Illinois, bars and restaurants can give away a free drink to customers who have been vaccinated, according to a new law signed Wednesday by Gov. JB Pritzker.

The new law will run from now until July 20, 2021, a press release from the governor noted.

“Not only will the vaccine protect you from getting sick — your free COVID-19 shot can now get you a free shot of your choosing or whatever drink suits your palate,” Pritzker said. “I’m pleased to sign this legislation into law to offer our hardest-hit businesses another lifeline as we recover from the pandemic.”

In other states, getting a vaccine dose can mean winning a gift card or being entered to win free tuition or $1 million.

Some students may still be wearing masks next year

Now that vaccines are available for children as young as 12-years-old, New York City will begin offering in-school vaccinations for kids 12-17, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday.

The program will start at four schools in the Bronx on Friday and will eventually expand to all five boroughs in the next few weeks. The city is partnering with UFT, a labor union that represents most teachers in the NYC public school system, to get as many kids vaccinated before the school year ends later this month, de Blasio said.

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Currently, around 118,000 New York City kids aged 12 through 17 have been vaccinated, comprising about 23% of the city’s kids in that age range, de Blasio said.

After more than a year learning remotely, many people are eager to make schools a safe place for their students to return.

Studies are currently under way in hopes of making a vaccine available to younger children.

But in the meantime, it is likely that children under 12 living in areas of high spread will likely still have to wear masks next school year, Fauci said.

CNN’s Lauren Mascarenhas, Ben Tinker, Jacqueline Howard, Amanda Watts and Laura Ly contributed to this report.