Biden declares pandemic reset, saying covid ‘need no longer control our lives’

Biden’s cautiously optimistic tone is part of a broader White House strategy to reset its covid response as the United States appears to be easing out of the crisis amid the president’s tanking approval ratings and Democratic anxiety that nosediving cases and school reopenings have not buoyed a dyspeptic public.

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“The challenge for the White House right now is how to get us on the road to a more optimistic future, while not seeming to declare mission accomplished, or leaving vulnerable people behind,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health research group. “It’s really hard to convey optimism and weariness at the same time.”

Administration officials say they will unveil details of their new approach on Wednesday, releasing a pandemic road map focused on four goals: protecting against and treating covid, including a “test to treat” initiative that would give people antiviral pills on the spot if they test positive at a pharmacy; preparing for a potentially dangerous new variant; preventing economic and educational shutdowns; and expanding vaccinations worldwide — all elements Biden previewed on Tuesday night.

The delicate balance Biden sought to strike — highlighting the wide availability of vaccines, treatments, masks and tests that people can use to protect themselves, while urging continued vigilance — underscores the challenge he faces in coming weeks and months. The administration is simultaneously under pressure to ease restrictions and enable a return to normalcy while polls show that most Americans still want some mitigation measures in place as the virus continues to circulate, if at lower levels.

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Biden also acknowledged the enormous toll covid has exacted on Americans: nearly 1 million deaths, interrupted learning for tens of millions of schoolchildren, missed family gatherings, isolation and myriad other hardships.

Some of the White House’s new urgency about ensuring a less disruptive response reflects polls showing a continued slide in support for Biden’s handling of the crisis. A Washington Post-ABC poll published on Tuesday found that 44 percent of Americans approve of his management of the pandemic, while 50 percent disapprove despite the sharp decline in cases and an easing of restrictions in most parts of the country.

That’s a sharp decline from the summer before the arrival of the delta variant, when about 6 in 10 said they approved of the job he was doing. Every Post-ABC poll since has seen erosion of that support.

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While there are numerous signs the country is in a far better place, most Americans do not seem to be giving Biden credit for the improvements. “Presidents always get blamed for lots of things beyond their control, and the pandemic is a very good example of that,” Levitt said.

Administration officials and some experts say the country has entered a new, less dangerous phase of the pandemic where most of those who become infected will not end up hospitalized because of wide access to vaccines, booster shots, testing and new therapeutics — making covid-19 gradually less lethal until it comes to resemble other respiratory viruses such as the flu.

Some have touted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new approach to measuring the disease’s impact, announced last Friday, which emphasizes that hospitalizations and hospital capacity, rather than just case counts, are a better way to assess a community’s ability to withstand the virus — and that data support easing restrictions.

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“The way people approach covid-19 is going to be based on their individual risk tolerance, instead of some government mandate,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We have to come up with an approach that reflects the fact that there will always be covid-19. It can’t be eradicated or eliminated.”

The changed approach was shaped by feedback from Ezekiel Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who advised Biden’s transition team, and other former advisers, who in January called for a new approach to covid-19 that would focus on living with the virus, rather than eradicating it.

In the intervening weeks, the former advisers and about two-dozen other outside experts have met regularly with the White House, talking through new initiatives to fight the virus, according to two people who contributed to the plan.

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One of the ideas was to prescribe antiviral medications on the spot to people who test positive for the virus. Other strategies include an initiative to improve indoor air quality to reduce viral spread, and an initiative to expand research into “long covid,” the constellation of symptoms that persist in many people for weeks or months after their initial infections.

The outside experts also met with federal health officials to game out the implications of another new variant — and strategies to prevent it from overwhelming the country the way omicron did.

They urged officials to prepare for a wide range of scenarios. In the best case, they said, infections might continue declining with no new variant emerging that would be capable of reinfecting large numbers of people, according to two individuals familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In the worst case, the administration would need to prepare for another omicron-like variant that is able to reinfect and sicken those who are vaccinated or had previous infections.

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“We need to be prepared for our new normal, or another new surge,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s covid-19 transition task force. “We’ve got to do both.”

To prepare for the worst case, Osterholm and other experts said the administration needs to help states make better decisions about mitigation measures and ensure there are ample supplies of vaccines, tests, antivirals and masks. Some privately worry the administration has spent too much time addressing “yesterday’s problem,” rather taking more creative approaches, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The administration had ramped up preparedness during the omicron surge, including purchasing hundreds of millions of rapid tests, making N95 masks freely available in pharmacies and boosting production of antivirals. While those steps came too late to really blunt the impact of omicron, experts and administration officials say it will help them be better prepared for another variant.

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Polls show most Americans have already fully or mostly returned to their pre-pandemic activities. A Post-ABC news poll released on Tuesday showed that bipartisan majorities think the virus is only “somewhat under control” or “not at all” controlled — and most still wanted some restrictions in place.

And new CDC recommendations released Friday mean about 70 percent of Americans can take their masks off indoors, based on current hospital data and case counts, though the guidelines came weeks after many states already took steps to ease restrictions.

In this next phase of the pandemic, several administration officials suggested they would play more of a supporting role to the states, making sure they have the tools they need, including vaccines, tests, antivirals and masks.

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Several local leaders, including Democrats, welcomed such a shift. They said the administration’s messaging and strategy has often been confusing, leaving state and local officials to fend for themselves when deciding what measures to have in place.

“I just don’t see broad-based public confidence in our national messengers at this point,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat who lifted mask mandates in his city in mid-February. “I think the messaging has been jumbled, and that’s being charitable.”

Lucas said that there are political consequences to pushing restrictions the public views as unnecessary.

“The first step is you just get broad based noncompliance,” Lucas said. Then, he said, “you’ll get an angrier and angrier public.”

Finally, he said, “you’ll start generating candidates that are running on platforms of ‘no covid rules at all.’ ”

But some public health experts express concern that the country is moving past the pandemic too quickly — repeating mistakes made several times over the last two years.

Abraar Karan, an infectious-disease physician at Stanford University, said he is worried that not enough has been done to protect the most vulnerable, who remain at high risk even as millions of Americans return to normalcy. He also criticized the administration’s messaging, including CDC Director Rochelle Walensky calling masks the “scarlet letter” of the pandemic.

“When you keep framing it as restrictions or getting your freedom back, people are going to buy into that and it’s so much harder when you need to put them back in place,” Karan said.

Administration officials — and Biden himself — disputed assertions they were ignoring the vulnerable. Federal health officials cite data showing that one-way masking with high-quality masks such as N95 respirators enable people to protect themselves even if others are not masked, two senior officials said. Those masks are now easily to obtain and are available free at some pharmacies, they said.

Karan, however, is not reassured.

“My concern is this is not the end,” he said. “CDC is saying because incidence is getting lower, this is the time to pull back on ‘restrictions,’ but we’ve done this so many times and we continue to have big resurgences.”

Annie Linskey and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.