Biden enters challenging stretch in coronavirus fight
President Biden and his administration are entering a difficult stretch as they try to get the coronavirus and its highly transmissible delta variant under control.
The White House and public health officials face the challenging task of convincing vaccinated Americans in certain high-risk areas to once again start wearing masks again, while redoubling their efforts to persuade millions of unvaccinated Americans to finally get the shot.
The president will deliver a speech Thursday laying out his plans for ramping up vaccinations, including a new policy that federal workers must get the shot or submit to regular testing in a significant step that could lead to businesses and other organizations following suit.
Biden, who has received high marks for his handling of the virus, declared less than a month ago that the U.S. is “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” However, the continued resistance from some Americans to getting vaccinated represents a clear setback in the fight against the pandemic.
Public health experts acknowledge it will be an uphill climb for the administration on masks, particularly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in May said fully vaccinated Americans could go without face coverings in most settings.
“It will be incredibly difficult. There’s no question,” said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Health Lab. “You’re swimming against the tide in so many ways.”
In updating the guidance, public health officials cited data showing that vaccinated Americans can spread the delta variant, which earlier this month became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States.
More than half of the U.S. is subject to the new guidance because of substantial or high transmission, including many counties in the South. The White House has instructed all agencies to mandate masks inside federal buildings in Washington, D.C., where transmission is also high.
While public health experts widely praised Tuesday’s move by the CDC as necessary to lessen the spread of the delta variant, Republican governors swiftly panned the guidance and refused to adopt new mask requirements.
Biden’s pandemic response has been lauded largely because of its contrast to former President Trump, who regularly defied public health guidance and openly feuded with his medical experts.
Biden hit many of his initial goals on vaccinations — administering 200 million doses in 100 days and making every adult eligible by April 19 — but he has run into difficulty reaching Americans inclined to shun the vaccine despite a robust and multifaceted outreach plan.
As vaccination rates slowed, cases started to rise again.
“The challenge here is getting vaccination up and immunity up so there are fewer places for the virus to go,” said Mark McClellan, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner during the George W. Bush administration, who added it will be important to watch how case rates trend in the coming weeks. McClellan noted that in England, which saw a delta surge before the U.S., cases appear to have already peaked.
White House officials pointed to figures Wednesday showing that 754,000 doses were administered over the previous 24 hours — the highest daily number since July 1 — as a sign of continued progress vaccinating the public.
There’s also a question of whether the spread of the delta variant could threaten the economic recovery, which data so far has shown to be resilient as businesses reopen amid loosened virus restrictions.
“If the virus begins to rage again, it threatens to slow down the recovery substantially,” said Austan Goolsbee, who was an economic adviser to former President Obama and chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisers. If the last 18 months have taught us anything, he said, “it’s that the virus is the boss.”
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 700 points last week amid broader concerns about rising case counts, though the market has since bounced back.
One Democratic strategist close to the White House acknowledged the longer-term risks to the economy if the virus continues to spread and the country is forced to consider more severe restrictions. But the strategist argued Biden’s agenda remains on track for the immediate future, pointing to a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal that was clinched on Wednesday.
Biden has said the types of business restrictions and local lockdowns imposed over the winter, when the virus was at its peak in the United States, should be avoidable this time around.
“More vaccinations and mask wearing in the areas most impacted by the Delta variant will enable us to avoid the kind of lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures, and disruptions we faced in 2020,” Biden said in a statement on Tuesday. “Unlike 2020, we have both the scientific knowledge and the tools to prevent the spread of this disease. We are not going back to that.”
Part of Biden’s challenge when he outlines the path forward on Thursday will be reaching Americans who have ignored mask guidance for the past 18 months and opted not to get the COVID-19 vaccine despite its widespread availability.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released last week found that of those who have not gotten vaccinated, 81 percent said they were unlikely to ever get the shot.
Numerous polls show Republicans are more likely than Democrats to shun the vaccine.
While some conservatives have spread anti-vaccine messages, others, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have urged Americans to get the vaccine.
Decisions by the federal government and other employers to mandate vaccinations could help increase uptake, though polls suggest the public is divided on encouraging vaccines.
“There are a growing number of workplaces, the federal government being one of them, that have concluded that the benefits … outweigh some of the concerns and pushback,” said McClellan.
Experts and former government officials are baffled by the lack of full approval by the Food and Drug Administration for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have been widely used in the United States, a step they said could help address hesitancy among some Americans to get the shot.
One former government health official suggested the updated mask guidance would do little to solve the problem since it applies to many areas where face coverings were already rarely used and because of the transmissibility of the delta variant.
Biden officials have been careful to set out realistic, achievable goals on the pandemic. They have consistently deferred to the expertise of scientists and have acknowledged repeatedly that the fight against the virus is not over, even as they eased mask recommendations in May and held a large gathering on the South Lawn in July.
The shift in approach this week signaled the fight has picked up once again.
“Maybe the Biden administration is learning it’s not so easy after all,” said a former Trump administration official. “We are backsliding.”
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