Biden: There's no need for lockdowns to contain the new variant -- for now

There’s a lot riding on the words “for now” in the clip below, isn’t there?

Here’s where I gently remind everyone that the president has no say over lockdown policy. He could order executive-branch employees to work from home, I suppose, but he can’t order them stay at home. That’s up to their governors.

Still, having Biden on the record as anti-lockdown is useful inasmuch as other Democratic politicians will be reluctant to contradict him. “We’re going to fight COVID this winter,” he said during this morning’s presser. “Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” Later he was pressed on it again:

If the president says lockdowns should be off the table, who are Gavin Newsom or Kathy Hochul or Jay Inslee to disagree?

I repeat what I said yesterday, that there’s virtually no scenario in which a lockdown to contain the Omicron variant would be justified. The exception would be if the variant turns out to be more virulent than Delta and capable of evading vaccine immunity. In that case, sheltering at home would be the only way to protect oneself. But in that eventuality, it wouldn’t take a formal stay-at-home order from a state official to convince people to shelter in place, would it?

Even then, the prospect of new mRNA vaccines tailored to Omicron hitting the market in a matter of a few months would ensure that the lockdown would be brief. And if the variant turns out not to evade immunity then the argument for lockdowns would evaporate entirely. If you want to protect yourself from Omicron, just go get the jab. That was Biden’s core message today, in fact: “The best protection against this variant or any of the variants out there is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot.”

Per the Times, it’s possible that a third dose will confer the same sort of sophisticated immunity on the vaccinated that people with hybrid immunity already enjoy — which, if so, should be equal to the challenge from Omicron.

People who recover from Covid and then receive even one dose of a vaccine tend to produce a broader range of antibodies, capable of recognizing more versions of the virus, than do people who are only vaccinated.

“It’s clear that hybrid immunity, the kind that people get when they are both infected and vaccinated, is superior, and that is very, very likely to take care of this thing, too,” Dr. Nussenzweig said.

“After two doses of vaccine, we did not see that. But we’re hoping that after three doses, maybe there’ll be some catching up,” he said.

Public health experts understand keenly that the lockdown era is behind us barring some catastrophic development with the new variant. Unless and until the vaccines stop working, there’s no need for economy-crushing non-pharmaceutical interventions like we saw in 2020:

“It is very exhausting,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a physician and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who was on President’s Biden’s covid advisory team during the transition. “The American public is rightfully exhausted, and therefore the amount of risk we’re willing to take goes up. People are willing to take more risks and accept more challenges, but they’re not willing to accept more restrictions.”…

Now, if there is a major resurgence of the pandemic, the political will for the harshest virus mitigation measures has largely evaporated even in the most liberal parts of the country that have been most open to restrictions, experts say.

“The threshold to shut things down is going to be much higher than it was,” said Robert Wachter, who chairs the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “One of the durable takeaway lessons is that the closing of schools is really a terrible thing to do and should be avoided at all costs.”

This morning even Fauci ruled out any new restrictions in the near term apart from the travel ban to southern Africa. Scientifically there’s no need — “for now” — and politically it’d be a calamity for Democrats. They watched the returns in Virginia. They read what focus groups had to say about school closures. They know the price.

Actually, there’s one scenario I can imagine where lockdowns might creep back onto the table even if Omicron turns out to be less virulent than Delta. If the variant is super-transmissible and capable of punching through immunity, there may be a tremendous number of Americans infected basically simultaneously. In that case, it’s possible that hospitals will be overwhelmed even if a smaller percentage of people infected by Omicron need hospital care relative to Delta. We could, theoretically, find ourselves back in a “flatten the curve” situation where the only way to prevent transmission and keep ERs clear until the updated vaccines are ready is to avoid contact. That would be a short-term problem, not a long-term one, but it could still do real economic damage. Especially since not everyone will be able to access the updated vaccine the moment it’s available.