White House faces new obstacles in COVID-19 fight

President Biden is facing a series of fresh obstacles in getting the coronavirus pandemic under control in the United States.

Several states have seen an uptick in cases even as millions of Americans are vaccinated each day, which can be attributed in part to the lifting of restrictions on masks and businesses and general pandemic fatigue more than a year after the virus began to spread widely. More contagious variants are spreading throughout the country, and experts warn that new variants could pop up until the country reaches a greater degree of immunity.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. While many health experts praised it as the right move, an extended pause could drive up vaccine hesitancy, posing yet another challenge for Biden.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) panel on Wednesday made no determination on when or whether to issue new recommendations on the shot’s use, meaning the pause may last multiple weeks.

The president has earned high marks for his pandemic response thus far from health experts and the public alike. A Monmouth poll this week found that 62 percent of adults say Biden has done a good job handling the coronavirus pandemic, a figure that is higher than the 54 percent who approve of Biden’s job as president overall less than 100 days into his presidency.

But the current setbacks could pose some challenges to those figures.

“I don’t think it reflects on Biden specifically, but it may slow the overall effort to get the country back up and running and it may add fuel to the skepticism that many Americans still have about the vaccine,” said a Democratic strategist of the developments with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

While the Johnson & Johnson delay will not disrupt the supply of vaccine doses to the country, it denies the nation the only approved shot that can be delivered in one dose and a vaccine that is easier to store than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

This could make it harder to get vaccines to more vulnerable populations and left some public health officials criticizing the decision, arguing it would lead to more vaccine hesitancy and slow the recovery.

“[The panel’s] decision to wait would be fine if there was no pandemic going on,” tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health. “But there is. And waiting 7-10 days won’t do much. Not sure what data they will get in that time. But we’ll have done real harm to a terrific vaccine particularly well-suited for vulnerable populations.”

The White House insists that its plan to have enough vaccine doses for all American adults by the end of May will not be disrupted by the pause.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the FDA process as the “gold standard” during a Thursday briefing and said the administration would let the process play out while remaining focused on vaccinating every American adult. 

“We remain confident that we have the supply needed to meet the demand,” she said. “Because we are overprepared and oversupplied, we remain confident in that.”

The pace of daily vaccinations has steadily increased over the past several weeks, with officials announcing this week that the U.S. is now averaging 3 million coronavirus vaccine shots everyday, with 3.5 million doses administered on Wednesday. More than 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine to date. 

Still, vaccine hesitancy was an issue even before the unwelcome news. Monmouth found that 21 percent of U.S. adults say they are unlikely to get a vaccine, down from 24 percent in March but still high. 

Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who served on Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board during the transition, acknowledged that the decision to pause the vaccine could create more hesitancy toward the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in particular but described it as a necessary step in demonstrating transparency around the vaccine process to the public. 

“If there is any sense that something is being hidden, I think that will create irreparable harm from a credibility standpoint to our ability to continue to pursue these vaccine programs,” Osterholm said. 

Michigan is among the states that has seen a sharp increase in new cases, and it has led to some friction between the state’s governor and the White House.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who was considered for vice president, asked the administration to surge vaccine doses to the state to head off the rise in cases, but the administration said it would not do so. The head of the CDC argued the most effective way to slow the spread would be to reimpose some restrictions, something Whitmer is loath to do given fatigue with restrictions in her state. Whitmer faces reelection next year.

Biden has called on governors to reinstate mask mandates in states where they have been lifted and to reconsider the easing of some restrictions, warning that too many Americans feel the fight against the pandemic is over.

Health experts expressed confidence that by summer, through a combination of warmer weather and a more widely vaccinated public, the country will likely have moved past the current spike in cases. Still, Osterholm said the fight isn’t over.

“I think what is happening in Minnesota, Michigan and starting to happen in other states is a warning we’re not done yet,” he said.

Recognizing the risk posed by the variants, the White House on Friday announced plans to invest $1.7 billion into assisting the CDC and state and local governments detect and monitor coronavirus variants in the U.S.

Officials have sought to address hesitancy among racial and ethnic minority groups as well as Republican voters, which polls show are far more likely than Democrats to resist the vaccines.

The Biden administration has invested resources into convincing hesitant populations that the vaccine is safe and effective and reaching underserved communities, including rolling out a network of 275 organizations including sports leagues, business and faith groups and other community organizations to coordinate efforts to instill public confidence in the vaccine.

The Biden administration has also put $3 billion from the president’s $1.9 trillion rescue package toward supporting state and local efforts to increase uptake of vaccines in minority and rural communities. 

But health experts describe the hesitancy issue as a complex challenge, one that requires officials to understand the rationale of each group that has expressed reluctance and address concerns independently. 

“When you start looking at all the different parties that may have reluctance to get vaccinations, there’s not one real answer. Part of the challenge is you can’t just put a billboard up that says get vaccinated,” said Osterholm. 

—Updated at 11:11 a.m.

Tags biden administration Coronavirus COVID-19 FDA Gretchen Whitmer Jen Psaki Joe Biden Vaccine

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