The Memo: COVID-19 risks quietly rise
White House press secretary Jen Psaki delivered a stark reminder on COVID-19 at Thursday’s media briefing.
The fact that the virus is no longer as disruptive of daily life as before “doesn’t mean it’s gone,” Psaki said. “It’s not gone.”
The warning was important because the dangers from COVID-19 have once again been edging up — even as pandemic-weary Americans have stepped into something approximating normal life.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also diverted attention from the pandemic, commandeering the political agenda and the vast bulk of media coverage.
The danger is that the nation has taken its eye off the ball.
“We are acting as if the pandemic is finished, and it is certainly not,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law and a public health expert. “We are going to crash through the 1 million deaths mark soon. And we are, going forward, very likely to continue to see spikes and wanes.”
Gostin added: “I think the public is so fed up of COVID restrictions that they have stopped caring. I think they are becoming numb to disease and death, and they are accepting risks they never would have before.”
Medical experts, including Gostin, note that the chances of the kind of cataclysm seen when COVID-19 first struck are small. Back then, no vaccines had been developed and no one had the natural protection offered by prior infection.
Both of those dynamics have changed, rendering massive numbers of fatalities — or a total collapse in the hospital system — far less likely.
But if the nightmare scenarios from the first phase of the pandemic have receded, the dangers from a new subvariant of the omicron variant, BA.2, are only just coming into focus.
“Because [BA.2] is 80 percent more infectious, we should be worried,” said Kavita Patel, who served in former President Obama’s administration with a focus on health care and is a practicing physician. “There are still a large number of our population who have not had the third shot. And even though children generally just get a mild illness, we still have way too few children vaccinated.”
In addition, Patel said, “There is a large pocket of the population who are immunocompromised and still need to take this seriously.”
Even though the public’s attention has wandered away from COVID-19, some high-profile cases in recent days could act as a reminder that the danger is still out there.
Just this week, Obama and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff have both tested positive. In public statements, both men were said to be experiencing only mild symptoms. Neither former first lady Michelle Obama nor Vice President Harris appear to have been infected.
On Thursday, however, the traditional St Patrick’s Day meeting between the U.S. president and the prime minister of Ireland had to be held virtually after the latter, Micheál Martin, tested positive for COVID-19 the previous night.
Martin’s case, in turn, raised worries for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was seated beside the Irish prime minister at a gala on Wednesday.
Overseas, cases are rising again in China, where Shanghai has closed its schools and two mayors have been dismissed. New cases in China have risen exponentially in the past month, though the overall numbers are still modest.
The United Kingdom has seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases too, with new infections spiking 48 percent in one week earlier this month. The rise is being linked to a combination of the transmissibility of BA.2 and a loosening of almost all social distancing requirements.
Here in the U.S., political battles over the pandemic are heating up again, after Democrats had to strip out a request for new COVID-19 relief funding from a massive government spending bill passed last week.
Pelosi on Thursday suggested the White House should double their initial request, to $45 billion, as Democrats attempt to pass standalone legislation.
“I think they should be double what they asked for, because even when they were asking for like 20-some [billion dollars], it was only going to get us to June,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol Thursday.
The White House has emphasized what it sees as the dangers in a lapse in funding, especially when it comes to provisions such as tests and therapeutic treatments such as monoclonal antibodies.
Psaki said on Tuesday that the prognosis would be “dire” if that happened.
But Republicans have been openly skeptical about the need for such a large tranche of money.
When an original figure of $30 billion was shifted downward in the earlier negotiations to $22.5 billion, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Politico, “That’s not because of need, but rather it’s the number they think they can most likely get right now.”
For Biden, there is obvious political peril if a new surge in COVID-19 cases happens. In such a scenario, public morale, already low, is likely to be dented further. There would also be economic knock-on effects on matters such as inflation, which has been accelerated by COVID-19–related supply chain disruptions.
The public’s appetite for taking widespread precautions appears to have mostly worn out.
Some experts argue that lawmakers need to accept that reality, rather than fight against it — and figure out how to best deal with the consequences.
“We have to meet the public where they are,” said Leana Wen, a former health commissioner for the City of Baltimore. “If the public is telling us very clearly they have moved on, we need to give them the tools to deal with the virus, and they can choose the level of risk they are willing to take.”
But to Wen, that was all the more reason for politicians, and Congress in particular, to act.
“It seems that Congress has not learned the lessons from the last two years,” she said. “We have seen what happens when you wait until there is a crisis before you invest in prevention. It is too late when that happens.
“The window is closed.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage