Scientists to Biden: Your winter COVID plan is too little, too late

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

You can’t blame Biden for the emergence of new variants. But you can blame him for his hubris in celebrating “independence from the virus” this summer as Delta was taking off across the U.S.

And you can most definitely blame him for being shortsighted about preparing countermeasures ahead of an inevitable winter wave.

I posted this clip yesterday but it was paywalled, so here it is again for those who missed it.

It can’t be stressed enough: Scientists have complained about the supply and expense of rapid tests in the U.S. since practically day one of the pandemic. It’s commonly known at this point that rapid tests are widely available and dirt cheap — sometimes free — in Europe. Yet just a few weeks ago Biden’s own press secretary scoffed at the idea of sending rapid tests to every American household as though it were a joke. The president himself was asked yesterday why it’s taken so long to ramp up testing and seem mystified by the question. He’d just announced that 500 million rapid tests would be available next month to those who want one, hadn’t he? How is that “long”?

But the question was in the context of the entire pandemic. Why has it taken 21 months for the federal government to prioritize rapid tests despite endless bleating about it from experts?

If it were only testing that had fallen through the cracks, that would be bad enough. But Axios points out today that Biden’s “reactive” strategy towards the virus is playing out on multiple fronts. In some cases he has his deputies to blame, like when the CDC and FDA dicked around for months on whether to approve boosters for all after Biden had touted the idea in a speech. In other cases it’s the White House’s own myopia that’s responsible. Either way, cases from Omicron are skyrocketing and the sense that America is forever one step behind the virus has become more glaring.

“There needs to be a commitment from the administration to make rapid, at-home tests available for every American to be able to test twice a week,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner. “500 million tests sounds like a lot, but it’s not nearly enough.”…

The administration also announced that it will be deploying support to hospitals across the country. But hospitals were struggling to respond to the pandemic long before Omicron arrived.

“[T]his is lovely, but it would have been really nice to think about how to provide surge capacity a month ago,” said Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and academic dean for Brown’s School of Public Health.

The inadequacy of testing to meet the current demand is the most common complaint. Trump’s former CDC director, Robert Redfield, echoed Wen’s point this morning by estimating that America would need a billion tests per month to meaningfully reduce transmission across communities, and at the rate that Omicron’s spreading it’s likely that variant will be gone before we approach that capacity. Scott Gottlieb was asked about the lack of tests this morning on CNBC and called it inexcusable:

Yesterday scientist Eric Topol ticked off seven policy changes Biden could have and should have made already to try to reduce the spread, from accelerating the timetable for booster shots to sending N95 masks to every household to ramping up production of Pfizer’s new COVID wonder drug. Instead Pfizer’s pill will probably also be in too short supply near-term to help much with Omicron:

All in all, Biden’s strategy to “shut down the virus” boils down to simply hectoring people to get vaccinated and hoping SCOTUS will uphold the OSHA mandate, an unlikely prospect.

Maybe he (and all of us) will catch a huge break by Omicron turning out to be much ado about nothing. Some scientists still aren’t convinced that it’s mild, though, or at least not so mild that the unvaccinated and burned-out hospital staffs having nothing to worry about.

“I still can’t quite wrap my head around how quickly this is moving,” said Joseph Fauver, a genomic epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “I think it’s going to be really bad. I don’t know how else to put it.”

Standards of care may need to be reassessed, experts said. Staffing shortages may require infected health care workers to continue working if possible, despite the risk to patients…

“Get the vaccine and the booster, for God’s sake,” said Mary Turner, an intensive care nurse who is president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “The nurses are at a breaking point.”

Some experts told the Times that we should be back in “flatten the curve” mode to protect hospital capacity. Others want new government-ordered restrictions, like requiring vaccination before boarding a plane: “We can let people decide for themselves and businesses decide for themselves about the risk, or take structured action and say, ‘These things should not be done.'” We’re at a weird moment in which the Democratic president’s response to Omicron — essentially “get vaxxed and live your life” — is diverging sharply from that of the expert class with which Democrats have traditionally aligned.

But then, Biden has to answer to pandemic-exhausted voters and scientists do not. If his gamble pays off and it turns out that Omicron is a nothingburger, it may help repair some of the damage done to Democrats among swing voters by last year’s many restrictions. If instead Omicron turns out to be a beast, he may never recover. The second-guessing about why he wasn’t more aggressive about trying to contain the spread, starting with building up testing capacity months ago, will be endless.

I’ll leave you with this viral clip. Sweden’s built a reputation for being uniquely chill about COVID relative to other western countries, but, er….