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Biden’s pandemic fight: Inside the setbacks of the first year

President Joe Biden.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Dr. Rochelle Walensky was stunned. Working from her home outside Boston on a Friday night in late July, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just learned from members of her staff that vaccinated Americans were spreading the coronavirus.

Vaccines had been the core of President Biden’s pandemic strategy from the moment he took office. But as Walensky was briefed about a cluster of breakthrough cases in Provincetown, the reality sank in. The Delta variant, which had ravaged other parts of the world, was taking hold in the United States. And being vaccinated would not, it turned out, prevent people from becoming infected with the variant or transmitting it.

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It was a “heart sink” moment, Walensky recalled in a recent interview. The discovery called into question the Biden administration’s almost single-minded focus on vaccination as the path out of the pandemic. And it made Biden’s July 4 message that the nation had moved “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus” sound naive.

Biden took office in January 2021 with a 200-page coronavirus response strategy, promising a “full-scale wartime effort” rooted in science and competence. The CDC’s July discovery marked the point at which the virus began ruthlessly exposing the challenges it would present to his management of the pandemic.

Biden and his team have gotten much right, including getting at least one dose of a vaccine into nearly 85 percent of Americans 12 and older and rolling out life-saving treatments. Those achievements have put the United States in a far better place to combat the virus than it was a year ago, with most schools and businesses open and the death rate lower because the vaccine significantly reduces the chance of illness or death, even from the highly contagious Omicron variant.

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But an examination of Biden’s first year of fighting the virus — based on interviews with scores of current and former administration officials, public health experts and governors — shows how his effort to confront “one of the most formidable enemies America has ever faced,” as he recently described it, has been marked by setbacks in three key areas:

  • The White House bet the pandemic would follow a straight line, and was unprepared for the sharp turns it took. The administration did not anticipate the nature and severity of variants, even after clear warning signals from the rest of the world. And it continued to focus almost single-mindedly on vaccinations even after it became clear that the shots could not always prevent the spread of disease.
  • The administration lacked a sustained focus on testing, not moving to sharply increase the supply of at-home COVID tests until the fall, with Delta tearing through the country and Omicron on its way. The lack of foresight left Americans struggling to find tests that could quickly determine if they were infected.
  • The president tiptoed around an organized Republican revolt over masks, mandates, vaccine passports and even the vaccine itself, as he worried that pushing certain containment measures would only worsen an already intractable cultural and political divide in the country. The nation’s precarious economic health, and the political blowback that Biden and members of his party could face if it worsened, made him all the more cautious. So rather than forcing Americans to get shots, he spent months struggling to accomplish it through persuasion.

Biden took over the task of distributing vaccines from former president Donald Trump, and by all accounts he brought order to a rollout that had been dysfunctional and chaotic in its first month.

But he also inherited a bureaucracy that had been battered by the Trump White House, which undermined the CDC, strained the government’s credibility with the public and helped foment virulent anger throughout the country over masks, social distancing and other efforts to contain the virus. Biden has been unable to bridge those divisions.

Two years into the pandemic, even as the Omicron variant has begun to recede in parts of the country, Biden is facing huge economic and political pressures. He has rejected lockdowns, school closures, or other extreme measures that could help contain future mutations but drive the country back into a punishing recession. His decisions will carry a cost no matter which way he turns.

Biden has battled the virus while also trying to make headway on other priorities: a bipartisan infrastructure deal, appointments to the federal bench and far-reaching social spending legislation. In August and September, as Delta surged, the White House was consumed by a chaotic exit from America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

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But the pandemic loomed over everything, dragging down Biden’s approval ratings as his handling of it became for many the measuring stick by which to judge his presidency. Since he was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021, 438,110 people have died from the virus, a number that is still increasing by more than 10,000 people every week.

“You cannot fight today’s pandemic,” said Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist of the Food and Drug Administration who advised Biden’s transition team. “You have to prepare for what’s next.”

As the administration heads into its second year of battling the pandemic, Omicron and Delta have proved that mutations of the virus have the potential to flood hospitals with patients, turning some into crisis zones. Tens of millions remain unvaccinated, many more lack boosters and officials are anxiously watching for signs that a retooled vaccine might be needed soon. Antiviral pills appear to be a breakthrough in treatment, but remain scarce.

Experts like Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director under former president Barack Obama, have predicted three possible scenarios ahead: that the nation reaches a kind of truce with the virus, with clusters of outbreaks; that the virus weakens to a threat more akin to a common cold; or that, in the worst case, a variant emerges that combines the contagiousness of Omicron with the virulence of Delta.

Frieden said the White House must plan for them all. Some former Biden advisers have called for the president to plan for the “new normal” — and accept that COVID-19 is here to stay.

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Inside the West Wing, there is little evidence that Biden is shifting strategies. He continues to project a sense of optimism.

“Some people may call what’s happening now ‘the new normal,’” he said Wednesday during a formal news conference in the East Room of the White House. “I call it a job not yet finished.”