In a press conference Wednesday marking his first year in office, President Joe Biden was unmistakably defensive about his administration’s COVID response. He said the U.S. is clearly in a “better place” than it was a year ago. But are we? Right now, the country is averaging 800,000 new COVID cases a day, three times as many as last January, and hospitalizations are higher than they’ve ever been.
Biden came into office assuring the American public that, unlike Donald Trump, he had a plan that would defeat the pandemic. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Washington Post health reporter Dan Diamond about where that plan succeeded and failed and how much blame to place on the current administration. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: You said that if you take a careful look at this plan, you can see places where maybe the administration has met a goal, but just barely, and needed to have pushed harder. I know you spoke to a bunch of experts about the plan. What did they say when you asked, is the administration’s plan working, or has the administration even followed the plan?
Dan Diamond: When I was first talking to experts, I specifically would go through the plan with them and say, is this something you would give them a pass? Would you fail the White House here, or would you say it’s partially achieved on ideas like masking, like testing? And the White House promised at one point in this plan that they were going to do, quote, “predictable and robust” federal purchasing of tests—essentially, the government was just going to buy up as many tests as they could in a predictable way, so if you were a test manufacturer, you knew that you had guaranteed customers.
You’re basically creating a marketplace.
Exactly. That didn’t happen. …
A more complicated example is on the global side, where the administration did come through, and you can go down the list and check, check, check. They rejoined the World Health Organization. They joined this vaccine sharing alliance. They’ve tried to restore some global luster and leadership after President Trump retreated from the world stage. I mean, you could say they did all the things, but at the same time, the global crisis is still pretty bad. So the question of did they do what was needed to make enough progress on the global front—I think the answer, and I got this from federal officials, is no. There’s a lot that is still needed in 2022 and beyond to make sure that variants don’t pop up overseas and come back, let alone all the people who are suffering from COVID infections and collateral damage that could really use the help of the richest and most powerful nation in history.
The experts also talked about health care workers. And of course, now we’re seeing hospitals overwhelmed with omicron. So what was in this plan that maybe could have prevented that?
The White House did say a year ago, as they took the measure of where the United States was in January 2021, they said hospitals are full, we have to come up with a plan to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, hospitals are again full, workers are that much more burned out. But the plan was to surge support to hospitals that would need it, so crisis teams—which we have seen the White House do.
Another plan was just to recruit more workers into the field so shortages could be averted. Some of that work has begun, but that’s a long process. You can’t make a nurse overnight. Maybe we’ll be ready in three years with more health workers, but we kind of need them now. So the issue is kind of this middle point: Could there have been more to keep people in the field? And I talked to one expert, David Grabowski, this great expert on long-term care at Harvard University, who’s been banging the drum for two years that some of the workers in nursing homes could have used a $5 an hour pay hike that the federal government financed, if you’re trying to keep people in some of the most sensitive work settings.
And then there’s the second piece, even beyond the shortage issue, of the safety concern. There are workers who have been exposed to COVID, whether at hospitals and nursing homes, packing plants, wherever, they have argued for two years that there need to be more workplace safety standards that hold employers accountable. The Biden administration came in promising to explore this idea, even push it, but has not made significant progress, and I’ve talked to front-line workers who are really dispirited about that, people who supported President Biden as a candidate but say he’s not following through as president.
I imagine when you brought these criticisms to the Biden administration, they maybe didn’t really think that this was their fault. I was struck by a quote from Andy Slavitt, who used to work in the administration early on: “This is a good plan overcome by events.” And I wondered what you made of that.
You know, Andy was pretty honest. I think he celebrated where he thought the plan did well. The Biden administration and folks like Andy who worked there can point rightly to the vaccination campaign. And even though the U.S. vaccination rate lags other countries, it’s not for lack of trying by the Biden administration.
I think where Andy and others acknowledged some challenge was the evolution of the virus. That delta became more transmissible. That omicron—not only more transmissible but dodging all the vaccines that the Biden administration had worked to put in arms.
But didn’t we know the virus was going to evolve?
I mean, I’m not endorsing the defense, but I think the Biden administration is pointing to that as an argument for why they were celebrating in the summer that the virus was increasingly in the rearview mirror, when it turned out not to be. There are plenty of people who said we need to be ready for the next variant.
A lot of officials you spoke with seemed to point to misinformation as a big hurdle for them. And it didn’t really follow for me, because there are also things they just didn’t do until literally this week, like allowing Americans to order free COVID tests to their homes.
So when it comes to misinformation, Gayle Smith, who led the State Department’s COVID response globally, said, to her, misinformation was like a second virus that they were trying to contain. When you looked at all of the people who were passing on vaccines or were not taking the precautions that they should, the Biden administration could take steps to try and protect people, but if folks are refusing to listen, then that’s a challenge that’s pervasive and a real problem.
At the same time, I think one reason the White House went to this idea of misinformation or Republican resistance is, frankly, it’s a political argument, and it’s a little bit of a get-out-of-jail card. The White House can say, well, we did all these things, but misinformation, Republican resistance, we couldn’t have predicted that, we couldn’t account for that. And I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, it seemed pretty clear from day one that the White House was going to go its way on vaccinations and public health messaging, and Republicans were going to fight the president. And I do think the White House is limited in some ways when it’s trying to take on the hydra of misinformation, of COVID myths, of political attacks. But there are things that were under the White House’s control that they did not do.
As people were lining up to get COVID tests in December and January, and as infection rates have soared, I think there’s been this palpable feeling of something needs to change in terms of the administration’s response. And you can see that in the fact that all of a sudden the administration is standing up COVID tests for every American. I wonder if you think changing the administration’s response means changing this plan you’ve been evaluating, or whether it’s about pressing on different levers with different degrees of pressure.
I have wondered that, and I’ve put that directly to the White House. When I was interviewing Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, and his top deputy, Natalie Quillian, the idea of new strategies came up, and I jumped on that and said, does this mean you’re going have a new strategy for year two? And immediately they said no, we’re sticking to what worked in year one, we think this is the right plan, we’re just going to keep doing more of it.
I don’t know if that’s the right answer or not. There are lots of things in that plan that did appear to work. Again, the vaccination piece generally worked. We haven’t really talked about health equity, but the administration can point to a fair number of statistics where it looks like they closed some of the racial and ethnic gaps in COVID bad outcomes. So there are ideas that are proven and accepted by public health experts across the aisle. It does come down to this question of execution and political will. For whatever reason, the White House did back off on some of these things in the middle, late last year. I think they really did think they had gotten to a point where the vaccination campaign was going to carry us through.
Kamala Harris gave an interview and was confronted with, you know, do we need to change course when it comes to the coronavirus? And her answer was so strange, but definitely along the lines of what you’re alluding to. It was a little bit of word salad: “It is time for us to do what we have been doing, and that time is every day. 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.” It felt like resistance to acknowledging that the field of battle has changed.
I think because this is a political administration that is, like any White House, concerned about their political viability, concerned about approval ratings, it is very, very hard to run away from a plan, even if it is seen to not be working. It is an admission of failure that will then be thrown back in their face.
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