The White House is preparing to pivot on the pandemic — but with a different approach than the July 4 celebration last summer that some have subsequently criticized as premature.
“No one wants a repeat of last July,” said one Democratic strategist.
At the Independence Day event, President Biden declared near “independence” from COVID-19. declared near “independence” from COVID-19.
What followed were the delta and omicron variants, which caused spikes in cases and hospitalizations, contributing to the COVID-19 fatigue that has been a factor in declining approval numbers for President Biden.
New evidence is now emerging that gives the White House and plenty of others hope that the nation is veering out of the pandemic.
The omicron variant is showing signs of fading: coronavirus cases are on the decline across the country. The White House is signaling that the new phase is about being able to live with the virus.
But there is caution in Democratic circles after the bad turns from last summer and fall.
“We can’t spike the football when we’re dealing with a huge unknown,” the strategist said.
Biden administration officials haven’t said much publicly about their plans and have made clear they’re still focused on ushering the country through the current surge of the pandemic.
“Our progress over the last year and the tools we now have certainly allow us to get closer to a time when COVID doesn’t disrupt our daily lives but is something we protect against and treat,” White House COVID-19 response director Jeff Zients said Wednesday during a briefing with reporters. “As we make more progress against omicron, we’ll, you know, get closer to that point.”
Political observers say the White House needs to hammer home the new approach in the coming months and beyond.
“It’s like when you’re preaching: You gotta tell them what you’re gonna tell them. Then you gotta tell them. And then you gotta tell them what you just told them,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the renowned professor and author who is also an ordained minister. “You gotta keep telling the story.
“Repetition is our friend,” added Dyson, who met with Biden as part of a conversation with a group of academics last year.
Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner under George W. Bush, said there are some steps the administration is already taking to prepare for a more endemic phase of the virus. Officials are in touch with vaccine makers working on omicron-specific vaccines, for instance. And they’ve made surplus purchases of tests that are being distributed to Americans free of charge.
“It’s definitely time to move towards a more ongoing, robust, resilient strategy to prevent a surge from ever happening again while enabling people to get back to more normal life,” McClellan said. “The public needs some more straight talk and guidance on what to do in this new phase.”
It’s unclear whether or when Biden himself plans to outline the way forward in the pandemic. White House officials and health experts say the country still has some time before reaching some kind of “new normal.”
“COVID as it is today is not COVID forever and we’re actively working towards that and what that will look like,” an administration official said, emphasizing that the tools the U.S. has to fight the virus are working.
Biden on Friday touted a strong jobs report that showed the U.S. economy added 467,000 jobs during the month of December despite the omicron wave. He also sounded a bit of a positive note on the pandemic.
“The COVID crisis has been cut in half, down in half in just three weeks,” Biden said during a speech on the jobs report. “Still too many cases, still we have to be on the alert, but to be clear, this is a dramatic decline.”
A group of outside health experts are preparing a detailed plan on a forward-looking COVID-19 strategy that they hope to have completed by early March and are planning to send to the White House, according to one former member of the Biden transition advisory team who is involved with the development of the plan.
The person described a shift in the White House strategy on COVID-19 as “critical,” but said that the administration and the public health community need to handle the pivot carefully, given the unknowns of future variants and the large pool of unvaccinated people in the nation.
“We all have to be careful,” the person said. “Everyone.”
Democrats largely agree that the White House shouldn’t rush to move away from the issue. Instead, Biden and his team need to realistically portray the realities of an elusive virus, they say.
“It’s time to have a serious conversation with the American people and say that we are going to be living with this for a long time,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. “We’ve been looking at this in a very binary way. Things are likely to never go back to normal, but it doesn’t mean we have to live in fear.”
Some Democrats and health experts do not fault Biden for the July 4 speech, which was an address to front-line workers at the White House that celebrated a large segment of the eligible population getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
The administration official said that the White House has always been clear about the unpredictability of the virus, noting that Biden included a warning about the more contagious delta variant in his address last summer.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University, said the U.S. is in a far different place than last summer due to an overwhelming segment of the population having protection against the virus due to the vaccines or recovery from COVID-19.
“We need to assure the public that, unless some really serious variant causes another emergency, that we’re going to soon stop our emergency response and start with a ‘living with COVID’ response,” Gostin said.