Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ditched her prepared remarks this week to express a sense of “impending doom” regarding rising Covid-19 cases, reversing weeks of positive news in the US’ pandemic war.
Though she and other Biden administration officials have been warning Americans not to relax their guard for weeks, rising vaccination rates have sparked hope that the long-running national nightmare is finally coming to an end.
This week, however, a steady rise in cases — eerily similar to the previous three surges — took hold, alarmed administration officials who fear a reversal.
Walensky’s dramatic warning and plea to “hold on a little while longer” during Monday’s White House coronavirus briefing marked an inflection point in the pandemic’s narrative, jolting the country to the reality that even the current pace of nearly three million shots per day might not be enough to prevent a final surge among the majority of Americans who are not yet vaccinated.
According to people familiar with the situation, her letter caught some members of the administration off guard and caused slight irritation among some of Biden’s advisers. Others openly thanked her. In either case, her words expressed an intense sense within the White House that the boom they had been planning for was finally coming — a “sinking sensation,” as one senior administration official put it, that things could get worse before they get better.
Within the White House, a delicate juggling act is taking place between retaining hope that an expedited vaccination campaign would end the epidemic, and openly ramping up warnings of a possible fourth surge fuelled by new variants.
The tug-of-war was once again on show. The CDC issued new travel advice for people who have been vaccinated on Friday. While the CDC stated that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, which is welcome news for Americans suffering from cabin fever, Walensky cautioned that travel is still not recommended due to an increase in coronavirus cases.
Before leaving for Camp David, where he will spend the Easter weekend, President Joe Biden, who has expressed concern behind the scenes that Americans are becoming complacent about taking action to avoid contagion, issued another warning.
“Too many Americans behave as if the war is already over. It’s not the case, “According to aides, Biden said Friday at the White House, capping a week in which he has received constant reports on the increase in numbers from his staff and has become increasingly anxious about it. “Cases are going up again. The virus is spreading more rapidly in many places. Deaths are going up in some states. So I ask, I plead with you: Don’t give back the progress we have all fought so hard to achieve.”
Returning the nation to normal is probably the most critical thing for a White House whose political future is almost entirely dependent on its ability to effectively navigate an end to the generational health crisis. An vast majority of Americans continue to approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic so far, according to polls released this week, including 65 percent in an NPR/Marist poll and 72 percent in an ABC News/Ipsos poll.
“We have to keep reminding people — as I try to do and as others try to do — that just because you’ve got 100 million people that have had their first vaccination, it also means that you’ve got 150 million adults that haven’t yet,” said Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the White House’s coronavirus response team, in an interview. “You want people to feel less scared — that’s good — but you also want people to be cautious and conscientious of the fact that there’s a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated yet.”
Before the US achieved vaccine-induced herd immunity, Slavitt said the President and the White House expected cases to rise again. He did say, however, that if another surge occurs, the US response would be different than it was earlier in the pandemic, thanks in part to the vaccine.
A slew of unknowns hang over the White House’s pandemic response and the likelihood of another outbreak, ranging from the percentage of citizens who refuse to get vaccinated to the vaccines’ effectiveness toward potential variants.