White House officials spent most of this year plotting a delicate, step-by-step process they hoped would lead the US out of the pandemic era.
One element that wasn’t part of that plan: President Joe Biden just came out and said it.
“The pandemic is over,” Biden said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday night. “We still have a problem with Covid. We are still working on it. But the pandemic is over.”
The statement surprised the president’s own senior health officials, many of whom only heard Biden’s comments through tweets and news headlines. The president didn’t originally plan to make any big news about Covid, nor had he discussed with his health advisers that the pandemic was coming to an end soon, two senior officials said.
When the White House viewed a transcript of its comments, recorded earlier in the week, after the interview, it failed to alert its Covid team — preventing the administration from getting a coordinated response for the immediate aftermath.
In the hours that followed, health officials privately and sarcastically applauded themselves for a job well done: After 20 months of working 24 hours a day, they joked, all it took was to deal with a one-in-a-century crisis. end for Biden to declare it ready. Others argued that the time was actually right for such a statement; that the virus is in a manageable state and that Biden was simply bluntly expressing what his administration had long been heading for.
Substantively, however, there were lingering concerns that Biden’s out-of-the-ordinary comments could undermine the White House’s efforts to formally end the public health emergency, the Covid crisis — and create a political become a headache if the virus comes. roaring back.
“We’re not where we need to be if we’re going to quote ‘living with the virus,'” Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Monday. “We still need to be aware of how unusual this virus is and remains in its ability to evolve into new variants that defy the standard public health mechanisms of handling an outbreak.”
Biden’s ruling will likely give Republicans more ammunition to oppose the White House’s funding request to prop up the federal Covid response. The White House is demanding more than $22 billion, though Democrats’ confidence that they could get that amount in an upcoming budget bill was waning, even before the “60 Minutes” aired.
It could also complicate the government’s campaign for people to seek updated vaccines ahead of a potential winter surge — an uphill battle that health officials say will be the real determinant of whether the US can emerge from the pandemic.
“Covid is probably not the biggest problem right now,” said a senior Biden official. “It’s just that Covid is still a real challenge. And when things go bad, it can turn from a problem to the biggest problem.”
Administration officials involved in the Covid response stressed that Biden’s comments would not affect their policy planning, nor did they constitute a turning point in the response. The government is still expected to renew its Covid public health statement in October and continues to stock up on testing supplies.
The White House also downplayed the rhetorical significance of Biden’s comments, dismissing it as the president’s attempt to highlight the administration’s success in curbing the virus. Widely available vaccines and treatments can mitigate the worst effects of Covid, businesses and schools are open and emergency health measures have largely evaporated. Even if the US is still technically in a pandemic, aides argue, Biden was trying to express that most people’s lives are no longer controlled by it.
A White House spokesperson pointed out on Monday the previously released Covid plan for the fall, which encouraged the use of vaccination and treatments to “manage fluctuations in COVID-19 and move forward safely.”
“If used properly, the tools we have now could prevent nearly all COVID-19 deaths,” the plan said.
Still, the episode underscores the difficulty the White House faces in claiming political credit for its progress in the pandemic, even as it tries to rally a weary audience against the threat of a resurgence.
More than 300 people a day still die from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and tens of thousands more are hospitalized. Biden officials and public health experts worry that a surge in cases during the colder months could disrupt Americans’ lives again, and believe the emergence of another variant down the road is inevitable.
At the same time, the government has increasingly struggled to get people vaccinated, thwarted by difficulties in breaking the pandemic fatigue of the public.
“Public health has really lost the confidence of many as we seem to swing back and forth between different positions,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. ‘Now here’s an example. If you say the pandemic is over, why would people need these boosters? We are already hearing that from the public.”
The public health community’s chorus of disapproval over Biden’s comments drew widespread attention Monday among White House staff, who pointed to their efforts to promote booster shots and secure more funding as evidence that they are not treating Covid as a past problem. .
Rather, White House officials insisted they can still conduct the kind of aggressive vaccination campaign needed to protect people from a resurgence, while acknowledging that much of the country has moved on.
Earlier this month, the government chose to roll out new, updated vaccines to ensure vulnerable populations could get their injections well before winter. It has also tried to rebrand the Covid vaccine as a once-a-year shot; an admission, aides said, that most healthy people need no more protection than that to stave off a serious illness and probably wouldn’t be willing to get it anyway.
The new messaging approach developed by Biden’s top health officials aims to rekindle interest in the vaccines and normalize them as part of people’s broader health routines, rather than the latest in an endless series of boosters. shots.
In a recent press conference, Ashish Jha, White House response coordinator for Covid-19, praised the shift to an annual vaccination frequency as a “major milestone”. Biden is also expected to deliver a speech in the near future promoting the annual approach, aides said, in what would be his first Covid-specific public speech since July.
Those tactics, however, are likely to get the government on its own so far. Community groups reaching for the shots have reported tepid demand in the early weeks of the rollout, a lack of urgency that people on the ground said was exacerbated by the state and local rush to get the latest. eliminate pandemic precautions, such as masking and vaccine requirements.
“This is very difficult,” Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against Covid, said of the state of local outreach efforts, even before Biden’s “60 Minutes” comments. “The sentiment is that, as far as they’re concerned, this disease is over.”
Biden officials have privately admitted that uptake of the updated vaccine is likely to remain low, even as they plan to use the government’s limited remaining Covid funds to push the shots as crucial to keeping people safe. It was another factor that contributed to the difficulty of discerning what stage of the pandemic struggle the country is at.
“Where are we in the pandemic?” said Osterholm. “We just have to acknowledge: we don’t know.”