WASHINGTON — Everything was going to be OK. That was the message Donald Trump had on Feb. 23, 2020, as Americans were beginning to learn about a novel pathogen that had originated in China and was now moving through Europe and other parts of Asia.
There were only a few cases in the United States, and the president assured Americans that there would not be many more.
“It’s going to disappear,” Trump said on Feb. 27. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
A year later, that day has yet to materialize. More than half a million Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19; businesses and schools are closed in many major cities; and, to make things worse, new, more potent strains of the coronavirus have begun to proliferate.
Messaging a coronavirus endgame has proved to be a vexing challenge to the Biden administration, which is acutely aware that many Americans hit their pandemic wall months ago. With warmer weather arriving soon in much of the country, it will become increasingly difficult to tell people to avoid barbecues, playdates, beer-garden get-togethers and pickup basketball games, among countless other activities that have been on hold for quite a while.
Yet the president’s science advisers also know that trying to rush back into normalcy too quickly will only feed the virus, especially if people decide to congregate in settings like restaurants, concert venues and sports arenas. That could lead to another round of lockdowns, as was the case in Europe.
That has left the Biden administration in an exceptionally difficult position, issuing warnings to a public exhausted by all it still can’t do. Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she was “deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic,” adding that “recent declines in cases have leveled off in a very high number,” with close to 70,000 new cases and nearly 2,000 deaths being reported each day.
“Our recent declines appear to be stalling,” Walensky said, adding that she was “really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19.”
Texas, for example, is expected to end its mask mandate soon. Pandemic-related restrictions have been eased in Arkansas. Restaurants have opened for limited indoor dining in New York City and Washington, D.C., which had both been among the most restrictive municipalities in the nation.
There is, to be sure, reason for optimism, with the Biden administration vaccinating some 1.8 million people daily and preparing to ship 25 million face masks to people who may need them. At the same time, it has sought to distance itself from the unrealistically optimistic expectations of President Biden’s predecessor, Trump. In doing so, it has risked compensating too far in the other direction.
“Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” Biden said in remarks on the pandemic on Jan. 26, as the country was in the midst of a devastating winter wave. His administration, he explained, would be “bringing back the pros to talk about COVID in an unvarnished way.” Indeed, a CDC that was largely muzzled under Trump now holds regular briefings. Other leading scientists, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, are not browbeaten every time they speak to the press.
That has empowered those scientists to speak more frankly, now that a president who described himself as a national cheerleader is no longer watching from the sidelines. Fauci, for example, recently said it may not be until Christmas — nine months away — that Americans will start to see a return to normal.
“Maybe you’ll still have to wear masks,” he added.
Adding to that dour chorus, several people who were science advisers to the Biden transition warned in a recent New York Times op-ed of a “dismal spring” unless Americans continue to follow public health guidance.
The new administration says it is merely trying to be honest with the American people instead of downplaying the pandemic the way Trump did. “Our outlook is neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” White House senior coronavirus adviser Andrew Slavitt told Yahoo News. “We analyze and manage so many likely scenarios and talk about them publicly and transparently. Importantly, making sure we don’t relax too early is critical, as it is one of the largest short-term variables. We are not smooth sailing from here, but are confident we will head in the right direction.”
A third vaccine, this one manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, was approved for distribution by the Food and Drug Administration over the weekend. That, however, presents a challenge of its own. Public health experts need Americans to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, which can be reached only once about 70 percent of the population either has been inoculated or has antibodies from having fought off the disease.
Only about 15 percent of Americans have been vaccinated, meaning that herd immunity is months away. In the interim, most Americans will have to continue living as they have since last spring, working and learning from home, avoiding parties and other gatherings. The trip to Alaska may have to wait. Same for that destination wedding in the Hill Country of Texas.
In other words, vaccination may not result in the kind of instantaneous reopening many are hoping for. “The goal is not to sort of open up travel” and other sectors of society, Walensky said during Monday’s coronavirus briefing. “We are not in that place right now,” she said, noting that case counts are rising again. “We are not out of the woods here yet.”
Fauci added that while people may be able to gather maskless in small gatherings if all present are vaccinated, they will otherwise have to stay cautious. He has said elsewhere that Americans will have to continue to mask up not only through this year but into the next.
Such projections reflect sound science. They could also, some say, foster a sense of defeatism and dejection in a population that had been hoping to have the pandemic over and done with by now. The new year, and the new president, were supposed to mark the beginning of the end. Instead, we may be only at the end of the beginning.
“It's exceptionally good news that we have a third safe, effective vaccine,” former Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen told Yahoo News. Wen, who is now a visiting professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, added that “the challenge in messaging” resulted partly in the rise of new strains, which could scuttle any promises of an end to the pandemic.
“Part of it is that we don't know which direction the trajectory of COVID-19 is going to follow in the coming couple of months,” Wen said. “Where it goes is up to the actions each of us take.”
Stanford health economist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, whose controversial anti-lockdown Great Barrington Declaration was embraced by the Trump administration, told Yahoo News that “pessimistic messaging about the state of the epidemic and the efficacy of the vaccine is a mistake; it discourages people who would benefit from the vaccine from getting it.”
“We are now at a point where we can treat the disease as a clinical problem to be managed, rather than a civilization-encompassing state of emergency,” Bhattacharya said, “and our public health messaging and policies should reflect that.”
The Biden administration seems to be guided by the knowledge that Democratic and Republican elected officials alike have been punished by the pathogen for even the slightest shows of impatience. That is why the White House is intent on playing it safe, offering projections less optimistic than some would like. Defeating the virus, after all, is clearly going to take more than just the power of positive thinking.
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