WASHINGTON – Months after declaring the US is on the verge of independence from the pandemic, President Joe Biden will make remarks Thursday on how to combat the spread of a contagious variant of COVID-19 that is fueling new cases every day and once overwhelming hospitals again.
The speech, which will include a “six-pronged strategy” focused on curbing the Delta variant and increasing vaccination rates in hesitant corners of the country, is tacit recognition that efforts so far have lagged behind Biden’s campaign promise, the pandemic to prevent control.
At least 75% of adults in the US have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, a milestone that has helped save vaccinated Americans from hospitalization and death as the Delta variant persists. But tens of millions of Americans remain unvaccinated and threaten to continue disrupting classrooms, vacations, and even vacation plans – a frustrating reality after a summer when the pandemic subsided before mask requirements were reintroduced and return to office schedules were delayed .
The president’s speech, public health experts say, comes to a critical point where the White House can realign its strategy on restricting the life of the unvaccinated and clearly outlining how to end the pandemic after 18 months. While Biden has had to juggle a non-partisan pandemic response, opposition to a federal vaccine requirement and focus on returning to normal are raising unrealistic expectations, experts say.
More:Is it a cold, allergy, or delta variant symptoms? How to know and when to get tested for COVID
“Risk communication during a pandemic is extremely challenging and the longer it lasts, the more difficult it gets,” said Richard Besser, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s harder than ever in this current climate.”
More Americans appear to be in the dark about the government’s future path to address COVID-19. A Gallup poll in July found that 41% of respondents disagree that the CDC communicated a clear plan of action on COVID-19, compared with 32% who agree.
The same poll found Americans disagree on whether Biden communicated clearly about the pandemic, with 40% saying so while 42% disagreed. The poll marks the first time Americans have rated Biden’s communications about the virus as positive rather than negative since serving as presidential candidate.
Change to mandates
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the six-part plan would include new steps targeting both the public and private sectors, requiring more COVID-19 vaccinations, stepping up testing, and making schooling “safer” .
Biden, who met with members of his White House COVID-19 Response Team on Wednesday, is expected to focus on schools as the children come on personal this fall amid mounting fears that classrooms could lead to a surge in cases To return to learning.
Psaki also said the plan would build on recent government actions, including: asking federal employees to confirm a vaccination or undergo routine testing and other mitigation measures; Conditioning of federal funds for nursing homes to vaccinate staff; and encouraging private companies to introduce vaccine mandates. The Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services also require military personnel and personnel to be vaccinated.
“We still have more work to do and we are still at war with the virus and the Delta variant,” said Psaki, adding that the pandemic is “superficial” for Americans.
Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security officer for the Obama administration who urged the Biden administration to prevent unvaccinated individuals from boarding flights, said vaccinated individuals should no longer bear the burden of those who resist rolling up their sleeves.
“The public health news underestimated the urgency of getting the two unvaccinated vaccinations in an attempt to educate and understand,” she said. “What I would like to see from the White House is that it moves from begging and flattering to demands – because the vaccinated have feelings too.”
The White House has so far opposed calls for a broader rule for vaccinating Americans, arguing that the president lacks legal authority. However, Kayyem points to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that a large majority of those who said they would “get vaccinated only when needed” remain unvaccinated, underscoring the mandate argument, even if this leads to legal challenges.
She also noted polls showing the majority of Americans are in favor of showing proof of vaccination for air travel, dining at a restaurant, or visiting their office, Gallup said. An AP / NORC survey found that the majority of American adults want vaccination requirements for sports, concerts, movies, and other crowded events.
“The polls suggest that if the American public does not just walk away from the unvaccinated, it becomes impatient not only when they are not vaccinated,” she said.
According to a recent USA TODAY / Ipsos survey, around 2 in 3 Americans – parents and non-parents alike – are in favor of schools or states making mask requirements for teachers and students. The respondents also advocate that teachers and other school staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19: 65% of all participants – and 56% of parents – state that they support such mandates, as the survey showed.
That frustration is felt by public health officials, Besser says, as they struggle to overcome the politicization of the pandemic and vaccines, as well as the government’s misinformation and distrust.
“Meeting people where they are is part of it, but also restricting what people are allowed to do – if they are not vaccinated – is also a legitimate strategy in my opinion.”
An early explanation?
The president used his July 4th speech to explain that the US has had some of its darkest days but “is about to see our brightest future.” That outlook has clouded as summer draws to a close and the U.S. has recorded more than 40 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. More than 650,000 people have died in the US and the daily infections and deaths are much higher than they were a year ago. Reports of more sick children raise alarms as students return to face-to-face learning.
“I think one of the government’s major communication challenges was the early declaration of independence from the virus,” said Besser Biden’s July 4th speech. “Because in reality we can’t tell when we are free from the virus, the virus will show us when we are free from it.”
Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said although the country is much better off than it was a year ago, public health officials likely had been preparing for the Delta variant, which is being passed by other countries as the US tore, made mistakes, told vaccinated Americans they could return to some semblance of normalcy and attend large gatherings exposed.
“We all probably should have realized that the Delta variant was coming and that we had to go through it,” he said.
In the months since then, the Delta variant has fueled a surge that has resulted in about 150,000 cases and nearly 1,500 deaths per day – despite vaccines being widely available.
More:USA exceeds infection rate as of 2020; Fauci Says Football Stadium Packing Isn’t ‘Smart’: COVID-19 Updates
Part of that problem, according to Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, is the “continued optimism” of the Biden administration that began under the Trump administration.
“The best thing we could have done from a messaging perspective in a pandemic – without creating panic – is to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “Unfortunately, we continue to plan for the best and figuring out what actually happens is worse than what people and our officials say or expect.”
Mina said the Biden government should have better expectations of our vaccines expectations and be clear that they don’t limit the spread. Mandates that require either vaccinations or routine tests mistakenly equate the two.
Julie Morita, a pediatrician and a member of Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, believes it was entirely appropriate to look into vaccines as the majority of those who are hospitalized or who die are unvaccinated.
“We knew we were going in that direction, and I think everyone expected that there would be some people who would either choose not to get vaccinated or have trouble getting vaccinated,” she said. “Reaching these groups requires a strong public health infrastructure, which we didn’t have before the pandemic.”
Morita, executive vice president of RWJF and former officer of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said a burned-out health system was part of Biden’s challenge to contain the spread of the virus.
More:Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine First to Receive Full FDA Approval, Paving the Way for Boosters and Mandates
“If the framework was very weak to begin with – and the injection of funding now will help strengthen it – it will not be as strong as it needs to or should be in the long run,” she said.
However, experts say that one of the toughest challenges is messaging as the colder months ahead push more Americans indoors and the delta threat thrives.
The Biden government is preparing to offer booster shots to vaccinated Americans, although it is unclear when exactly they will start. The president initially announced September 20 as the target date, but health officials have warned they may need more time to review the dates. The US Food and Drug Administration will meet on September 17th to review the booster dates.
Mina and others hope Biden’s speech will clarify some of the undefined guidelines and provide a clearer picture of the months ahead.
“The pandemic is an information problem and we should recognize it as such,” he said.
Featuring: Joey Garrison, USA TODAY