The late-summer sprint to Labor Day was shaping up as a turning point for America, with long-dormant offices turning the lights on, tourists jetting to Rome and Paris again, and President Biden using a July Fourth cookout to declare “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
Those jazzy “Welcome Back America” ads from Applebee’s finally had a ring of truth after stutter steps during the pandemic.
Instead, the U.S. feels stuck in neutral as it watches another surge and girds for what might be a difficult winter, poking holes in the economic recovery and Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to “beat COVID-19.”
Corporate bosses are putting reopening plans on the shelves, parents are still fighting over masks in schools and — in a bit of a pile-on — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “homecoming” concert was washed out by a hurricane as optimism about the virus plummets alongside the rise of the fast-moving delta variant.
A poll from The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 41% of adults are “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or their family members becoming infected, compared with 21% in June and 43% in January, during the last major spike of the virus.
In some ways, the nation’s plight is a case of spiking the ball on the 1-yard line. The administration relaxed mask guidance for vaccinated Americans in May, only to reverse it a few months later because of evidence that vaccinated people who catch the aggressive delta variant can spread it in some cases, so they should wear masks indoors in high-transmission counties.
House Republicans say shifting advice, mandates and fuzzy data are counterproductive as the administration chases a path to normalcy this fall. The president hasn’t nominated a permanent Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and a plan to roll out booster vaccines appears to have overshot the scientific data.
“The administration has relied on fear, control and mandates — not science first. Like with their sudden reversal of mask mandates, they’ve undermined trust in public health and people’s confidence in safe and effective vaccines,” said Olivia Shields, a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans led by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.
“They owe it to the American people to provide clear answers. To beat this pandemic, the administration should stop making it harder for people to properly assess risks, get their lives back and care for their children’s overall well-being.”
Mr. Biden’s push to wrangle the virus was looking up earlier this year. Vaccine distribution to the general public went relatively smoothly during the spring, and the White House took a quasi-victory lap as transmission took a nosedive before Independence Day.
“While the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation,” Mr. Biden said during a July Fourth cookout at the White House. “It’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”
The administration is struggling to reach that last part of the message. Only 52% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated with COVID-19 shots that are free and plentiful and remain the best defense against an aggressive delta variant that spreads swiftly and could almost be considered a new virus.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. also is in a difficult position because of premature relaxation of public health measures such as masking and crowd avoidance; the onset of the fast-moving delta variant, which exploited the gaps in vaccination and safety measures; and state policies that are popular with political bases but get in the way of “science-based” prevention measures.
The Biden administration has criticized Republican-run states such as Florida for barring schools from imposing mask mandates at the start of the academic year and getting in the way of institutions and employers that want to require vaccination.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said it is up to parents to decide whether to cover their children’s faces as his state faces another surge in COVID-19. It leads the nation in hospitalization as a share of the population, at 73 per 100,000.
The governor is focusing on monoclonal antibody treatments for those who get infected and fall ill, regardless of whether they choose to be vaccinated.
The Biden team says the treatments are underused, but it is focusing much of its energy on supporting the COVID-19 shots. Wider protection from vaccines is the only way to avoid a repeat of the winter spike across the country last year, officials say.
“In areas where we have more vaccination, we have less disease. The way out of that is vaccination,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Thursday.
There have been signs of progress. The U.S. administered roughly 900,000 shots per day after a midsummer lull. It reported 1.4 million shots in a single day on Friday, the best one-day total since July 1.
“We know more vaccinations are the way to end the pandemic, and that’s exactly what we continue to see: more vaccinations,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said at a recent briefing. “We’re doing everything in our power to ensure everyone, both here at home and around the world, has access to vaccines because more vaccinations are how we end this pandemic. So, if you are unvaccinated, our message is simple: Don’t wait any longer. Do your part.”
Scientists say the potential waning of the vaccines’ effectiveness over time, particularly against any infection, is complicating the path forward. The emerging data poses a management test for Mr. Biden, who must balance his promotion of first-time vaccination with the booster plan while trying to convince the government’s scientists that the general public needs a third dose.
The timing of the booster rollout is uncertain after the president appeared to jump ahead of regulators by announcing a Sept. 20 start date.
Outside advisers to the CDC are demanding more complete data before they accept Mr. Biden’s plan, even as the White House scrambles to stay ahead of dangerous variants that appeared to suppress hiring in August. Employers added just 235,000 jobs, according to Friday’s report, the fewest since January, prompting Mr. Biden to pledge further measures to combat the delta variant in the coming weeks, though he insisted the country was in a much better place than it was last winter.
Big companies, meanwhile, are delaying their office reopening plans. Google, Amazon and Apple pushed their returns from early fall to January.
“You have to think about COVID like it is Alex Forrest played by Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction.’ No matter how many times you try to drown it in the bathtub, it keeps coming back in other forms. It’s the confounding shape-shifting nature of the pathogen,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University.
Mr. Baker said the wily virus hobbled President Trump in spite of his vaccine-making Operation Warp Speed, and now it is dogging Mr. Biden despite a successful 90-day rollout of the shots at the start of his term. The issue is probably going to stick around.
“Unlike Afghanistan, which will probably be in the rearview mirror by November 2022, it’s going to be an issue in some form — boosters, mask mandates, COVID passports — until we have the magic bullet,” Mr. Baker said.
Scientists remain hopeful that COVID-19 will be a manageable, regional problem instead of a widespread crisis like it was in the pre-vaccine era and that vaccination levels will be sufficient to keep patients from inundating hospitals in the coming months.
“There will always be a baseline number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID that will ebb and flow with seasonality and immunity rates. In areas in which immunity is low, we can expect an acceleration of cases,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The issue now is solely the result of people choosing, voluntarily, not to be vaccinated, and there’s not much that can be done from a government perspective to persuade those individuals to be vaccinated. Vaccination decisions are probably more influenced by local conditions and by trusted community leaders rather than politicians and government officials.”
He said it would be helpful if the Biden administration encouraged the use of home tests as a routine measure. The rapid tests are available at pharmacies and grocery stores, though they can be low in supply or cost-prohibitive.
“These devices should have been readily available, even in vending machines, at the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Adalja said.
Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, the founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, said the nation also needs to find a way to depoliticize science-based public health, including masking mandates.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we may well be stuck in cycles of surges driven by variants and waning immunity.”