Biden is bungling the pandemic response

Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

An ongoing jobs crisis. Fifteen-hundred completely preventable deaths a day. Hours-long testing lines. Widespread fear as unvaccinated children are sent back to school. Internal squabbling over whether and when to roll out booster shots and issue approval to vaccinate younger kids.

It’s all taking their toll on pubic appraisals of President Biden’s COVID response — and it’s long past time he did something about it. Biden could start by asking someone like White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients to step aside as part of a broader shift in strategy, from a self-defeating deference to “science” to a much more aggressive campaign to stamp out this dreadful pandemic sooner rather than later.

While a majority of Americans are now almost completely protected against severe disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, the Biden administration seems to have almost no meaningful strategy to bring the pandemic to an end beyond magical thinking that vaccine uptake will increase with some polite prodding and artfully produced briefings. The country is racking up over a million COVID cases a week, pediatric hospitalizations have reached or exceeded their winter peaks in some states, and the vaccinated public is receiving very mixed messages about the state of their immunity, whether and when to get a booster and the kinds of activities they should be engaged in.

The worst and most public dysfunction seems to be coordination between regulatory bodies and the private sector regarding boosters and pediatric vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mysteriously slow rolling not just third shots of the existing mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna for the general population, despite clear data from Israel that efficacy against infection wanes as times marches on, but also new boosters from Moderna specifically geared to fight variants. Last month, the Biden administration suddenly announced that boosters would be administered starting on Sept. 20 for anyone eight months or more out from their second shots. Six days later that timeline was bumped up to six months. Then scientists at the FDA and CDC balked at their marching orders and publicly called that timeline into question, accusing the White House of rushing them for political reasons.

To make matters worse, the administration announced on Sept. 3 that Moderna vaccine boosters would be delayed at least several weeks to complete a review of the company’s trial data. There remains no timeline for a Johnson & Johnson booster even though the company says a second shot of their vaccine produces a robust immune response. The 14 million people who got that company’s single-shot vaccine will remain in limbo indefinitely. The whole fiasco has rendered the “one vaccine is just as good as the other” discourse from the spring maddeningly hollow.

And what are ordinary people to make of our immunity levels right now? It’s waning, some say, based on Israeli data suggesting that those who got their shots first are getting sick with breakthrough infections more often than those who got their jabs recently. On Aug. 27, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that boosters are not necessary for the time being and vaccinated people should be confident in their protection from severe disease — but last week he seemed to endorse the idea that all vaccinated people will need a booster for maximum protection. The administration has not addressed studies suggesting that the Moderna vaccine provides longer-lasting immunity than Pfizer. Meanwhile, Moderna and the FDA are fighting over dosages for the company’s proposed booster vaccines. Biden’s team promised that it could quickly roll out boosters for any variant, but here we are more than six months into the Delta nightmare, and they are nowhere to be seen.

The administration often seems trapped by its own promise to “follow the science” wherever it leads, a fundamentally silly premise that obscures the way that scientific discovery and knowledge develop in fits and starts. What happens when significant numbers of fully credentialed scientists disagree with one another, as appears to be the case with boosters and the timeline for children’s vaccines? It’s one thing not to listen to Ivermectin peddlers, take your marching orders from late-night cable hosts, or allow a handful of skeptical, totally uninformed voices to derail policymaking, as former President Donald Trump did at key pandemic junctures. It’s quite another to think that updates to vaccines which have been delivered into arms more than two billion times over the past year require some ideal-perfect level of scrutiny in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis.

The administration has fallen into the same “follow the science” trap with children’s vaccines. Yes, under ideal circumstances, we would not inoculate millions of children on such a compressed timeline. But we remain mired in a Marianas Trench-deep crisis, and the vaccines are no longer “experimental.” Concerns about kids are at least partially responsible for the hesitation many vaccinated people still have going out to eat in restaurants, attending movies and theaters, boarding planes and trains and more, all of which is now exerting demonstrable downward pressure on the economy. Are many parents being hyper-cautious about a disease that is unlikely to seriously harm their kids? Sure, but as someone joked this week about reassurances that only a small quantity of children get seriously ill from COVID: “Yes, but I have a very small quantity of children?”

It’s not just confusion over the boosters, and the increasingly impatience of panicked parents enduring the agonizing, horizonless wait to vaccinate their kids. America also still has a testing problem. During the Trump administration’s shambolic response to the early pandemic, the unavailability of widespread testing was a critical, foreseeable failure, one that drew justified ire from Democrats. Yet today, eight months into the Biden administration and 19 months into the pandemic, there is still somehow a shortage of tests. Pharmacies around the country are having trouble keeping over-the-counter testing kits, which are quite expensive to begin with, in stock. Critics who shouted about the Trump administration’s refusal to use its powers under the Defense Production Act have mostly been silent about long lines for free tests and empty shelves at pharmacies where the tests should be.  

There’s also the problem of overarching strategy. There’s almost nothing the White House can do about red state governors who pander to anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers and who seem determined to extract maximum death tolls from their populations. But accelerated pediatric vaccine and booster timelines would at least give the millions of sensible people who live in Texas and Georgia the opportunity to protect themselves against their heedless neighbors.

The federal government still refuses to use its powers to compel, rather than to beg for, people to get their jabs. Experts have been calling to mandate vaccination for air travel for months, yet the Biden administration has taken the curious position of leaving it to individual CEOs to mandate vaccination for their employees. Biden wants businesses to issue mandates for employees but his team has provided neither carrots nor sticks to make it happen. Perhaps Congress could also take the occasional break from negotiating with Joe Manchin to pass laws designed to incentivize vaccine uptake, from tax breaks to direct payments to individuals.

Fair or unfair, there is an actual human being serving as President Biden’s COVID coordinator, and he’s a logical choice for who to fire. Jeff Zients is a classic D.C. insider, a Bain & Company management consultant and investor who leveraged his lofty status into a series of Mr. Fix It jobs for the Obama administration before returning to the private sector to get even richer. Zients’ business-friendly fingerprints are all over the administration’s COVID approach, which is more deferential to the needs of private businesses than it is to the desire of ordinary people to stay alive. Ultimately, his job title says “coordinator” — and “coordination” seems to be precisely the thing that the White House strategy is lacking.

Most of all, the Biden administration needs to use the awesome power of the federal government to incentivize vaccination and speed up various processes that will allow responsible people to fully resume their pre-pandemic lives. Not only is this incompetence costing lives right now, but it is also creating an enormous political problem. If we are still in mask-and-panic mode a year from now, Democrats are going to lose 60 seats in the House and get blown out so badly in the Senate that the chamber will be out of reach for a decade. And unfortunately, there is no science to follow for how to claw back power from a newly authoritarian Republican Party that is waiting patiently to seize on these mistakes and entrench itself in power indefinitely.


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