President Joe Biden took office promising to “shut down” COVID-19, but in recent weeks, he has taken steps toward acknowledging that the virus will not be eradicated, repositioning to limit damage in the midterm elections.
The focus of messaging from the White House and top administration health officials continues to promote vaccinations, masks, and caution. But in several notable instances, Biden officials have also moved to encourage the public about the relatively low severity of the omicron variant, backed the reopening of schools, and acknowledged that the spread of the virus was inevitable.
The sitting president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm elections, and Republicans only need one more senator and five more House members to gain majorities. The pandemic is now a major liability for the Democrats and Biden as the public’s faith in his ability to steer the country out of the pandemic has fallen to a new low, according to FiveThirtyEight, which reported Thursday that roughly 48% disapprove of his job so far.
“The unvaccinated are dying from COVID-19. But here’s the deal — because we fully vaccinated nearly 210 million Americans, the majority of the country is safe from severe COVID-19 consequences,” Biden said Thursday. “That’s why even as the number of cases among the vaccinated Americans go up, deaths are down dramatically from last winter.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, went further, warning Tuesday that “omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will, ultimately, find just about everybody.”
Asked Thursday if the administration was changing its strategy toward the pandemic, Vice President Kamala Harris struggled to answer.
“It is time for us to do what we have been doing in that time as every day,” Harris said. “Every day, it is time for us to agree that there are things and tools that are available to us to slow this thing down.”
The White House did not return a request for comment on the matter.
Director Rochelle Walensky of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also taken to highlighting the more promising news about the way the omicron variant interacts with immune systems, as a growing body of evidence supports theories that the strain is far less capable of ravaging the public as the delta variant. The CDC published a massive study Wednesday that reported people infected with the omicron variant had a 53% decreased risk of symptomatic hospitalization compared with those infected with the delta variant, as well as a 74% drop in the risk of being admitted into intensive care units and a 91% reduction in mortality. Critically, the study indicated that the variant is less dangerous for those without previous immunity.
How the economy emerges from the pandemic slump by the time November rolls around will also have a huge influence on the way people vote for their representatives, American Enterprise Institute health policy expert Tom Miller told the Washington Examiner.
“If they can get people back into the labor force and supply shortages ending, that’ll be a bigger determinant as to where this administration is with regard to the midterms than a lot of our short-term health-related or public health infrastructure concerns,” he said.
A recent change to CDC isolation guidelines for people who test positive for or are exposed to COVID-19 reflected concern over the omicron variant’s ability to overtax hospitals and deprive businesses of staff. The CDC previously said people who test positive for the virus should isolate for 10 days, but the agency decreased that period to five days if the person is asymptomatic. The new guidelines say that a person who is asymptomatic after five days can leave isolation without first having to test negative for the virus as long as one wears a mask consistently.
The change in protocol for infected people came less than a week after Delta Air Lines implored the agency to make it easier for their vaccinated employees to return to work faster as long as they were not showing symptoms.
“We have a finite amount of access to healthcare in this country … and you certainly don’t want to run into a situation that we have before where we’re rationing care based on who’s likely to live, not the one that is in the greatest need,” said Karl Minges, the interim dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven. “If you do think about the disease burden in relation to cases, this makes a big difference in our local economies.”