Covid confusion snarls Biden White House

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden urges schools to stay open, but there is a widespread shortage of Covid tests.

He calls it the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” but that only confuses sick overcharged Americans at home with the omicron variant.

And the administration has not changed its guidelines for recommending high-filtration masks despite calls from the medical community, while recent isolation guidelines have only added to the uncertainty.

The White House’s strategy of staying the course on Covid increasingly comes up against the realities of a roaring pandemic that is forcing schools and businesses to close.

A half-dozen former health decision-makers, including some members of Biden’s transition team, told NBC News that the Biden administration needs an urgent reset of its Covid strategy or that the House Blanche could quickly lose her credibility with the public.

“Biden was elected president, in large part, based on a message of ‘I am competent, I am capable, I will tell you the truth and I will bring Covid under control in a way that my predecessor did not. could and refused to do, “and that continues to be the number one problem for most people,” said Kathleen Sebelius, who served as secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration.

While praising the administration for being able to quickly make the vaccines widely available, she said “Americans’ lives are always quite chaotic and a little messy and when they thought they’d be okay they went back.” .

She added: “I think it is about skill and ability, to speak the truth and to use all the tools available to the president.”

As the omicron variant began to metastasize across the country last month, Biden and his senior health officials focused primarily on urging people to get their shots and boosters, and on prescribing a mask indoors while giving the go-ahead to holiday gatherings for fully vaccinated people.

He called on schools and businesses to stay open with a strategy that emphasized testing, reassured vaccinated Americans that they are unlikely to become seriously ill if infected, and promised that the federal government is prepared to deal with testing shortages and overwhelming hospitals.

But the rapid spread of the variant has created a level of disruption in the lives of many Americans not seen since the early days of the pandemic. Staff shortages forced schools and businesses to close and resulted in absences from the police and fire departments with large numbers of sick first responders. Airlines have canceled thousands of flights due to staff shortages, transit systems have shut down bus and metro lines, and rising cases have once again crippled the airline industry. cruises.

Demand for tests has exceeded the country’s capacity in the hardest-hit places, creating long lines and delaying results by days.

Home testing is still scarce, and the administration was widely criticized last month for what appeared to be confusing recommendations for those infected as cases skyrocketed.

The isolation period has been shortened to five days instead of 10 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended a negative test before leaving isolation after the shortened period – regarding some public health experts and prompting critics from the American Medical Association, which said in a statement that “the shortage of testing right now does not justify omitting a testing requirement to get out of now shortened isolation.”

“In terms of communication and trust in the CDC, it feels like we’ve backed down,” said Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner.

Wen said some of the decisions and fallout reminded him of the early days of the pandemic response under the Trump administration.

Health experts have said at least part of a new medium should include preparing Americans to accept Covid as endemic, while trying to reduce the virus’s most disruptive impacts, such as keeping people out. hospital and reduce serious or fatal illnesses by promoting immunizations.

“There is agreement that the message needs to be better and that it would be important to be simpler for people and more focused on what people need and guided action,” Ezekiel Emanuel said. , a key member of Biden’s transition team and former health policy adviser. to the Obama administration. “I think we just need a clear message to let people know what ‘do’ is.”

They also say Biden needs to recognize the extent of the testing shortages and address them.

Biden has pledged to send 500 million free at-home Covid tests to Americans, with the first batch coming out this month, but it will take months for the administration to be able to procure and ship so many tests, based on production estimates from test manufacturers. On Monday, the administration announced it would require insurance companies and group health plans to cover the cost of home Covid-19 tests from January 15 and delayed the decision as another means to attempt to ” improve access to tests.

“There must be admission at the federal level [about] what is wrong now and frankly we have a mess of testing, ”added Sebelius. “Although I think the president stepped up at first to buy the test kits and get them to people, even mailing them to people, we are late for this game for a whole variety of reasons. ‘haven’t done the tests well since March 2020. It’s a problem and I think you have to say it out loud because that’s what a lot of people go through every day.

Recognizing the need to improve her messaging, CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said on Friday she would start holding regular press briefings with other CDC officials, outside of weekly White House briefings. on Covid which usually last 30 minutes and go. time for just a handful of questions. It is a decision that former administration officials had advocated.

She spent that first briefing on Friday detailing the thinking behind the agency’s isolation and testing guidelines released last month.

“One of the things that was very distressing was that the CDC didn’t really explain itself directly to the American public,” former Obama administration CDC director Thomas Frieden said, adding that he was very encouraged that the CDC would start organizing more of its own briefings. cheeky. “It’s a problem. In past outbreaks, the CDC regularly briefed, explained the science, and explained how the guidelines might apply.”

Since the omicron variant arrived in early December, the White House has increased the amount of time Biden has spent addressing Covid publicly, highlighting the need for vaccinations and the higher risk of infection, even for those who are vaccinated. . The administration has also stepped up support for states, sending thousands of federal staff to hospitals along with medical supplies and equipment.

But the president has not pushed for tougher measures, like a return to distance learning or a nationwide lockdown, as officials believe they have the tools with vaccines, masks and tests to manage the pandemic, according to administration officials.

“Now we’re in a different place than a year ago,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday, citing the number of Americans now vaccinated. “We have a range of tools at our disposal, including antivirals and other treatments. So we’re going to continue to develop that, but we’re in a different place than we were a year ago. “

Psaki said the president continues to label Covid a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” because CDC data shows those who are not vaccinated are significantly more likely to be hospitalized or die if infected than those who have been vaccinated.

The White House referred requests for comment to the Department of Health and Human Services, which said in a statement Monday that the administration has “led with transparency and data – no matter how complex the science amidst a unique pandemic – and focused on getting Americans the information they need to stay safe and protect others. “

“It is important to note that President Biden has not deviated from his main campaign pledge that he will let science lead, even as we face the challenges of an ever-evolving pandemic,” said in part HHS spokesperson Kirsten Allen.

One aspect of the guidelines that has also been confusing, health policy makers said, concerns masks. Last month, Biden and his top Covid advisers, including chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci and Walensky, gathered for a video call with the governors. The group sat together in the type of high-filtration masks they didn’t urge the public to wear.

The masks, called N95 or KN95, have come highly recommended by public health experts outside the White House who say plain cloth and paper masks do not provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant. But the CDC’s website still recommends disposable cloth and paper masks, and officials haven’t made any specific recommendations for the public to switch to more protective face coverings.

“I can’t imagine the CDC or anyone else wouldn’t agree that at this point in the pandemic, with omicron being so contagious and the virus ubiquitous, that a sheet mask is still the way forward, ”Wen said. “There are a lot of people who still walk around in cloth masks thinking they are protected and that they are infected. It is simply unacceptable.

The White House said it was following the CDC’s mask guidelines, which does not recommend wearing N95 masks but instead advises people to wear a “tight-fitting mask” which could include cloth masks. A spokesperson said Biden had been explicit and consistent in urging the wearing of the mask, including in schools.

Politically, Biden had better acknowledge that the virus is here to stay, despite his repeated promises as a candidate that he would “shut down the virus,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster.

“Will Covid ever be the big hit that Biden or his people or Democrats had hoped he would be?” The answer is no, ”Maslin said. “He lost the opportunity to make it a big success. But there will certainly be many other things that he will be judged on.

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