Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
President Biden will be walking a delicate line when he discusses the coronavirus pandemic in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. His White House has been working on a detailed strategy to transition the nation to what some are calling a “new normal,” but Mr. Biden is unlikely to lay out the plan in his speech.
Instead, he will speak in broad strokes about the pandemic. With cases declining and the 2022 midterm elections approaching, Mr. Biden will make the case that the United States has “made tremendous progress” against the coronavirus since he took office, according to a White House officials who spoke anonymously to preview the president’s remarks.
But he will also remind Americans that the virus is unpredictable, and that they must remain vigilant. And he will pledge to remain vigilant himself, by preparing for the possibility of future variants.
An average of about 66,000 new coronavirus cases are being reported each day in the United States, according to a New York Times database. That is far less than the average daily caseload of about 800,000 in January, at the peak of the winter surge fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant. But it is still more than five times what the daily caseload was last June, before the Delta variant drove a summer surge.
Even as Mr. Biden proclaims that things are getting better, there are large segments of the American population who remain at risk. Children under 5 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. On Monday, New York State health officials released data showing that the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech is much less effective in preventing infection in children 5 to 11 years than in adolescents or adults.
And an estimated 7 million Americans have weak immune systems, illnesses or other disabilities that make them vulnerable to severe Covid. The White House announced last week that it was taking several steps to make masks and coronavirus tests more accessible to people with disabilities, and Mr. Biden will most likely spotlight those efforts in his State of the Union remarks.
Mr. Biden learned the hard way that predicting the course of an unpredictable virus is dangerous business. On July 4 of last year, he declared that the United States was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” Then the Delta variant hit, and Mr. Biden’s remarks looked naïve.
Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said Mr. Biden needs to “acknowledge both the physical and emotional pain that we’ve experienced,” while also exhibiting “true humility with this virus, because we still don’t know what the next six months are going to bring us.”
The president must also grapple with the reality on the ground. State and local governments across the country, many led by Democrats, have dropped their mask mandates. More coronavirus precautions are likely to slip away in the wake of new guidance released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The guidance no longer relies solely on case counts to gauge whether masks and other safety measures are needed; it suggests that 70 percent of Americans can stop wearing masks for now, and that they no longer need to socially distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces.
While Americans are eager to move past the pandemic, there is also trepidation, according to a new survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
Overall, about half of the public expects it will be safe for most people to “resume normal prepandemic activities” by late spring, including a third who say it is already safe to do so, the survey found. But a majority of Americans, 61 percent, also worry that lifting restrictions would put immune-compromised people at risk.
“The conventional wisdom seems to be that Americans are ready to throw off all Covid restrictions and be done with it, but the survey shows that reality is much more complicated,” said Drew Altman, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. “Much of the public is sensibly both anxious and eager about returning to normal.”