WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s administration has devised a strategy to contain one strain of coronavirus, and then another has emerged that is much more contagious.
This week – a month late – Biden hit his goal of 70% of U.S. adults who have received at least one injection of COVID-19. Originally intended as an affirmation of American resilience to coincide with Independence Day, the late stage offered little to celebrate. Driven by the delta variant, new cases are on average more than 70,000 per day, above the peak last summer when no vaccine was available. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is drawing expert criticism from the medical and scientific community for its recommendations for intermittent masking.
But the delta variant makes no political distinction. If Biden’s response to the pandemic is lacking, Republican governors opposed to pandemic mandates also face accounting. They too were counting on a context of declining cases. Instead, unvaccinated patients are invading their hospitals.
The Biden administration’s process-driven approach has managed to deliver more than enough vaccine to protect the country, enough to ship 110 million doses overseas. When the president first set his 70% vaccination goal on May 4, the United States was distributing about 965,000 first doses per day, more than twice the pace needed to meet the July 4 target.
Then things started to happen.
While the White House was aware of public inquiries showing sections of the population unwilling or unmotivated to be shot, officials had not expected that nearly 90 million Americans would continue to reject life-saving vaccines that offer a pathway back to normalcy. The spread of vaccine misinformation has created a smoldering fog of doubt that has lingered on the ground in many communities, especially in Republican-ruled states.
Yet on May 13, when the CDC largely lifted its mask-wearing guidelines for fully vaccinated adults indoors, the top row indicators were still flashing green. The agency said unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks – and get vaccinated soon. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris celebrated by removing their masks and strolling through the White House rose garden. Across the country, a daily celebration has spread in cafes, supermarkets, outdoor cafes and restaurants. People were planning weddings and music festivals.
Drowned to applause, experts warn that there was no way to tell who was and who was not vaccinated, and a country agitated for ending the pandemic was essentially placed on the honor system.
“Presidency Biden’s biggest mistake when it comes to COVID 19 was the CDC’s hasty and chaotic change in masking guidelines in May,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former health commissioner and Baltimore commentator. “This had the direct result of giving people the impression that the pandemic was over. This allowed unvaccinated people to have carte blanche and behave as if they were vaccinated, and therefore we have the surge of the delta variant. ”
“I think they were naive,” Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said of the CDC. “They saw him as a carrot, as a gift. ”
Meanwhile, the delta variant had arrived and, within weeks, would become the dominant strain in circulation.
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky recently confirmed how more contagious the Delta is. “If you get sick with the alpha variant, you could infect about two other unvaccinated people,” she said. “If you get sick with the delta variant, we estimate that you could infect about five other unvaccinated people – more than double the original strain. “
Last week, the CDC reversed the focus on masks, recommending that even vaccinated people re-mask indoors in areas where the virus is running, now most of the country.
The immediate reason was a report from disease detectives of a recent outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The delta variant was to blame and the majority of those infected had been vaccinated. Although very few vaccinated people got sick enough to be hospitalized, early findings showed that vaccinated people with breakthrough infections carried as many viruses as unvaccinated people.
The report fueled vaccine doubts in some quarters. Wen, the former health commissioner, said the CDC should have put the Provincetown report in a more complete context that showed vaccines continue to protect. The CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On July 4, Biden proclaimed that the nation declared independence from the virus. In recent weeks, he appeared to be out of the pandemic. The president focused on securing a bipartisan infrastructure deal and selling the separate Democrats-only legislation to carry out his ambitious national agenda. The number of COVID-19 briefings from the White House has declined.
“We celebrated prematurely,” said Ali Mokdad, an infectious disease expert at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle. Biden’s 70% target was a solid milestone, Mokdad said, but about half of the population is not yet fully vaccinated.
Now vaccinations are on the rise again, but the data does not show a dramatic increase.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Republicans dismissive of mask requirements, are seeing flare-ups in their states. Together, Florida and Texas accounted for about a third of new cases nationwide in the past week. DeSantis doubled down on the challenge on Tuesday, blaming “media hysteria” and people spending more time indoors during the sweltering summer.
“Even among many positive tests, you see a lot less mortality than year-over-year,” he said at a Miami-area press conference. “Do I prefer to have 5,000 cases in 20-year-olds or 500 cases in seniors?” I would prefer to have the youngest.
Offit, the Philadelphia vaccine expert, says “it’s hard to watch” DeSantis says he will not honor mask mandates. ” Why not? Asked Offit. “That’s why his state leads the league in business. “
EDITOR’S NOTE – Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar covers healthcare policy for the Washington office of The Associated Press. Zeke Miller covers the White House with a focus on the Biden administration’s response to the coronavirus.