The political vise tightens on Biden as he faces a Covid storm

He outlined the next phase of the White House Covid response — which includes a belated effort to maximize at-home testing — at yet another anxiety-producing moment when Americans are being bombarded with confusing messages about what they should or should not do in the face of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Earlier this week, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that increased social mingling over the holidays “will lead to increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths” and added the grim message that “an event canceled is better than a life canceled.”
London has called off its New Year’s Eve celebration in Trafalgar Square and Paris has scratched its New Year’s Eve fireworks to keep its citizens away from large gatherings. Israel, which has been at the leading edge of Covid research, is now recommending that everyone over age 60 get a fourth dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine amid surging Omicron cases.

Meanwhile, most Americans have not yet even received a first booster. And the guidance on masking — which seems to be constantly changing — varies in different cities and states across the country. Atlanta reinstated an indoor mask mandate Tuesday because of the high level of transmission. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the same the day before, just over a month after relaxing it.

Biden’s political vise will only be tightened by interruptions to critical services like education, transportation, health care and policing if workers get sick as Omicron cases increase — potential challenges the administration has not yet addressed in detail.

The President has been trying to strike a careful balancing act by tailoring his messaging to the vaccinated and unvaccinated — knowing that he faces a serious backlash if Americans sense a movement back toward lockdowns, shuttered businesses or school closures.

In this increasingly intractable crisis — with his party’s political fortunes inextricably linked to how he handles the pandemic in the new year — he is leaning on Americans to show personal responsibility, and even a sense of patriotic duty, by getting vaccinated and boosted and using common sense precautions.

Biden reassured Americans, and particularly those who have received a booster shot, that they “should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays” as planned, adding, “You’ve done the right thing.” But he had an entirely different message for the millions of unvaccinated Americans, warning them that they “have good reason to be concerned.”

“You’re at a high risk of getting sick. And if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying,” Biden said.

“All these people who have not been vaccinated, you have an obligation to yourselves, to your family, and, quite frankly — I know I’ll get criticized for this — to your country,” the President added. “Get vaccinated now. It’s free. It’s convenient. I promise you, it saves lives. And I, honest to God, believe it’s your patriotic duty.”

Plans for more testing and backup for hospitals

Biden outlined new plans to get the nation ready for a potential surge — including ramping up the nation’s testing infrastructure; making 500 million free at-home tests available to Americans in the coming weeks; stockpiling masks, gowns and ventilators; calling up 1,000 military doctors and nurses to step in as reinforcements at overtaxed hospitals; and planning for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to open new pop-up vaccination clinics where Americans can get booster shots, with two sites already open in Washington state and New Mexico.

But the administration is also clearly on defense about the scarcity of rapid at-home Covid tests and growing lines at Covid test sites around the country. The President flashed agitation when reporters asked him Tuesday whether his administration should have been better prepared for this moment on the testing front, given that many Americans are frustrated about their inability to buy rapid tests just before they were planning to gather with family and friends.

When one reporter asked why it has taken so long to increase testing, Biden replied: “Come on. What took so long?”

“It didn’t take long at all. What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought,” he replied, even though many public health experts have pointed out that the US has moved more slowly than other nations to make rapid tests available during a pandemic that has spanned nearly two years.

Vaccinated Americans can live their lives, despite Omicron

Hospitals in some parts of the country are already under severe stress as they brace for a rise in Covid cases. Dr. Donald Zimmer, an emergency room physician at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Indiana — where the hospital is at 127% capacity — said the staff is “underwater.”

“Our hospital is pulling every lever that we possibly can to try to open up more bed space, to try to bring in more nurses and techs and respiratory therapists and to try to open up more zones,” Zimmer said during an interview on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.” But many of the patients who are being treated for Covid are unvaccinated, he noted, and made a calculated decision not to get the vaccine. “They’re taking up beds that we know we need for other patients that need surgery for their heart disease or for their cancer. … Those patients don’t have access to the care that they need right now and that’s pretty frustrating.”

“It’s overwhelming and its incredibly stressful,” he said.

In addition to outlining the reinforcements that the administration is planning for the nation’s hospitals, Biden attempted to address the worries of many parents that their children may need to quarantine if cases rise in schools after the holiday break. Biden noted that children five and older are eligible for the vaccine and that students now have the option of testing to stay in the classroom if a classmate tests positive. “We can keep our K-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing,” Biden said.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sought to amplify that message Tuesday during an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto on “Newsroom” when asked whether the administration has been looking at expanding testing in schools.

Cardona said that his department is working closely with administration health officials to make sure there are enough Covid tests available in schools to ensure students “can stay in school and make sure we’re not spreading Covid in schools.”

The education secretary rejected the notion that the US went too far in switching to remote learning during the early days of the pandemic, but noted that the nation is now in a different place.

“I believe that precautions that we took were necessary, but we’re a year removed from that,” Cardona said, noting that there were no vaccines back then to protect children and the older relatives they were seeing each day.

“We know what works. We know how to protect ourselves. There’s no reason our schools should be going remote fully. We need to keep our kids in the classroom.”