WASHINGTON – It’s over two full weeks since the White House pandemic response team held one of its briefings, which used to be a regular affair during the Delta and Omicron waves of 2021. Now the “invisible enemy” of COVID-19, like former President Donald Trump virus, has been replaced by the all-too-visible war in Ukraine.
But as public health officials have reiterated tirelessly in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic is working toward its own ends, often thwarting people’s attempts to declare victory. Washington was reminded of that inconvenient fact this week, following the two-year anniversary of the lockdowns Trump ordered in 2020, when the pathogen first arrived in the United States.
At least nine Democrats on Capitol Hill have tested positive for the coronavirus, some apparently after attending a party summit last week in Philadelphia where President Biden was present. Earlier this week, second Mr. Doug Emhoff also tested positive, leading to his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, canceling her appearance at a pay equity event at the White House.
“It’s not gone,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. It was St. Patrick’s Day and Biden was due to meet Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin. However, Martin tested positive for COVID, so the meeting took place via Zoom, with Biden in the Oval Office and Martin across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House.
“He was looking forward to meeting today,” Psaki said. “And meeting via Zoom is, I think, as we have all experienced, not the same.”
There were questions about Biden’s own health and, more generally, whether the rush to return to normal was premature, especially with the highly transmissible BA.2 variant causing spikes in parts of Europe and Asia. Politics and public health appear to be at odds with the issue, with elected leaders well aware that new restrictions could meet with public response and epidemiologists say such restrictions — masks in particular — may be needed in the coming weeks. .
“From what I know about human nature, which I think is pretty much, people are kind of done with COVID,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, told TAUT News.
With many Democrats still fearing the coronavirus and public health experts warning of risks to the vulnerable and unvaccinated, the White House faces a challenge: how to balance caution with optimism. After all, 65% of Americans are fully vaccinated and millions more have some protection against a previous infection. And treatments for severe COVID-19 are effective — and available.
At the same time, very young children are still not vaccinated and there is little idea when the Food and Drug Administration might make them eligible for an injection. And for millions of people battling cancer or other medical conditions, the coronavirus remains a serious threat.
That challenge is best summed up by the headline of an opinion essay in the Washington Post last week: “Covid isn’t over, but it’s over for me.”
It doesn’t seem quite over for Washington either. The coronavirus sent then-President Trump to the hospital in 2020, but his successor has so far avoided contracting the coronavirus. He has consistently modeled caution, but lately has grown impatient about the need to move forward with the restrictions that have made the past two years so difficult for Americans.
“It’s time for America to go back to work and fill our great downtown area with people,” Biden said earlier this month. He also shed his own mask, which he had worn diligently.
On Thursday, the White House announced that its pandemic response coordinator, Jeff Zients, is stepping down and would be replaced by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. As a logistics expert, Zients had been tasked with overseeing vaccine delivery and solving other operational challenges. Jha, on the other hand, is an epidemiologist, who is likely expected to speak to an often confused audience on how to live with the coronavirus.
“We cannot be afraid of this virus,” Jha said earlier this year.
That was the message Psaki was trying to convey during Thursday’s press conference, when she was confronted with a hodgepodge of pandemic questions from the (mostly unmasked) journalists sitting before her. Many of those questions centered on why Biden had not been tested for the coronavirus since Sunday, despite attending an event attended by Irish President Martin on Wednesday night.
“His weekly test cadence remains as it was; it hasn’t changed,” Psaki said, trying to keep calm and continue messaging. While some government officials are already considering returning to mask-wearing to flatten an expected BA.2 spike, the White House fears disruptions with school and business closures.
At the same time, the administration has become frustrated with Congress, which rejected a $15.6 billion request for new pandemic funding designed to bolster the country’s stock of vaccines, therapies and other supplies.
“We need this money,” a senior government official told reporters this week. “Time is not on our side.”