Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Thursday sought to clarify his argument that "it is absolutely the government’s business" to know which Americans have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, after facing backlash from Republicans in Congress.
Becerra posted on Twitter this his comments were "taken wildly out of context."
"To be clear: government has no database tracking who is vaccinated. We’re encouraging people to step up to protect themselves, others by getting vaccinated. It’s the best way to save lives and end this pandemic," the federal government’s top health official said.
Becerra’s remarks earlier Thursday came in response to Republican criticism President Joe Biden has received this week for his administration’s latest push to persuade vaccine-hesitant Americans to get their shots.
In a speech at the White House on Tuesday, Biden gave an update on the state of the U.S. vaccination program and ongoing efforts to reach parts of the country where skepticism of the vaccine still runs high.
“Now, we need to go to community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oftentimes, door-to-door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus,” Biden said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also detailed the components of the administration’s vaccine campaign at her briefing on Tuesday, including “targeted, community-by-community, door-to-door outreach to get remaining Americans vaccinated.”
Those references to door-knocking drew swift rebukes from congressional Republicans, who cast the comments as potential infringements on Americans’ civil liberties.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) also tweeted: “It’s NONE of the [government’s] business knowing who has or hasn’t been vaccinated.”
“How about don’t knock on my door,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) tweeted on Tuesday. “You’re not my parents. You’re the government. Make the vaccine available, and let people be free to choose. Why is that concept so hard for the left?”
But Becerra dismissed those complaints earlier on Thursday. “Perhaps we should point out that the federal government has spent trillions of dollars to try to keep Americans alive during this pandemic,” he told CNN in an interview.
“So it is absolutely the government’s business,” Becerra said. “It is taxpayers’ business, if we have to continue to spend money to try to keep people from contracting Covid and helping reopen the economy.”
The secretary also noted that “knocking on a door has never been against the law” and that Americans “don’t have to answer. But we hope you do.”
But Becerra’s comments only fueled the fire. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) referred to the HHS secretary as "Big Brother Becerra."
"What happened to health privacy and personal freedom? Too much liberty has been lost in the state of fear government and media created over Covid," Johnson tweeted on Thursday. "People should be free to choose or refuse Covid vaccination without pressure or fear of reprisal. Say no to Big Brother Becerra"
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) misrepresented the Biden administration’s strategy in a tweet Thursday, posting that "Becerra and Biden have you on a list and are going door-to-door."
"That is absurd, even by Dem COVID power trip standards," Bishop posted.
When asked about door-knocking in Thursday’s White House press briefing, Psaki once again clarified that the government doesn’t have a database of who’s been vaccinated. She added that federal officials will not be going door-to-door, and that the effort is led by doctors, faith leaders and other community volunteers.
"The thing that is a bit frustrating to us is that when people are critical of these tactics, it’s really a disservice to the country and to the doctors, faith leaders, community leaders and others who are working to get people vaccinated," Psaki said. "This is about saving lives and ending this pandemic."
The back-and-forth over the administration’s new strategy comes as 160 million Americans are poised to be fully vaccinated by the end of this week, according to the latest figures from the president.
But the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is more easily transmissible, accounted for more than half of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. last month and continues to pose a threat to unvaccinated people across the country.
Of those Americans who died last month from the coronavirus, more than 99 percent were not vaccinated, according to federal health officials.