The long war against Covid-19, ever more daunting in the dispiriting months of winter, is now posing a fundamental question over whether the US has the political, economic and national will to prevail before the disaster gets much worse.
A race against time to vaccinate sufficient Americans before mutant versions of the virus cause a new wave of sickness and death is turning into a critical stress test for a mass immunization effort off to a difficult start.
And there is a disconnect in Washington over the scale of the crisis, with Democrats demanding a “go big” economic rescue plan and the few Republicans who back action envisaging a much more modest approach.
It remains unclear whether vaccine and testing efforts, attempts to alleviate harrowing economic suffering and the level of buy-in from the American people themselves are sufficient for the challenges that lie ahead.
“We have got to prepare ourselves for a long battle,” William Haseltine, a groundbreaking medical researcher and author, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday, warning of the potential of variant viral strains to prolong the pandemic.
“We can do it. We have to muster the popular will to do it. It can’t be done only by leadership, it has to be done by each and every citizen,” he said.
In a glimmer of hope on the economic fight, President Joe Biden spent two hours in the Oval Office with a group of Republican senators who have offered a counter-proposal less than one-third the size of his $1.9 trillion rescue package. Congressional Democrats, far less concerned than Biden about a bipartisan approach, say the GOP approach is far too small.
There was no sign of a breakthrough Monday, but in today’s acrid Washington any meeting between Democrats and Republicans that does not end with open hostility is an incremental step forward.
In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “while there were areas of agreement, the President also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.”
The Republican reaction was tempered but courteous, adding to an impression that while Biden may take on board some GOP ideas, the prospect of a bipartisan vote for the final package remains remote.
“I would not say that we came together on a package tonight,” Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins said, but she praised the President for his openness to what she said turned out to be an “excellent” meeting that lasted two hours.
Still, the tone of the talks also offered some hope at a minimum that Biden’s definition of unity — that political disagreements shouldn’t turn into flaming political warfare — has a little traction.
Skeptical House Democrats
Capitol Hill Democrats are, however, deeply skeptical of taking the time to consult Republicans who have a sharply different take on the size of the crisis, a reality that narrows Biden’s negotiating room.
Just before Biden convened the meeting with the GOP senators, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York started the procedural machinery they could use to ram through the super-sized Democratic plan using a measure known as reconciliation to overcome Republican stalling tactics.
And the White House spent the day running up to the meeting stressing that the size of the multiple crises afflicting the country means that slimmed-down rescue plans will not work. That is a point also underscored by the growing sense that relative normality is still many months away. A pandemic stretching late in the year would force Biden to quickly return to Congress for another rescue if a smaller package is agreed to now.
Biden’s plan would send another $1,400 to many Americans and extend unemployment benefits through September. He’d spend tens of billions of dollars in vaccine and testing programs and to help schools reopen. He’d also send hundreds of billions in aid to states and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The Republican offer comes in at around $600 billion and includes similar amounts to battle the pandemic. It extends a slightly smaller weekly unemployment benefit until the end of June. It also offers stimulus payments — of $1,000 — but targets them more narrowly.
Can Biden steel America’s morale?
The fate of the country — and of Biden’s presidency — depends to a considerable extent on his capacity to steel Americans for the next stage of the battle and his ability to maintain national morale.
His White House has injected perceptible urgency to the fight, overhauling the faltering vaccine rollout of a previous President who most often ignored the worst domestic crisis in decades. Americans are now deluged with briefings and data from scientists, free to speak without fear of political repercussions. The most important priority will be scaling up the vaccine effort — an operation that depends on the swift approval of a large Covid-19 rescue from Congress.
But the President is leading a country beaten down by months of social distancing, family isolation and economic pain — left as divided as it has been since the Civil War by Donald Trump’s tumultuous exit.
As new coronavirus infections decline and eventually hospitalizations and death rates fall, state governors are likely to face intense political pressure to restore a semblance of normal life.
Already some restrictions on restaurant openings and other measures are being eased in states like New York, Michigan and California. The majority of Republican voters, who already doubt Biden’s legitimacy thanks to Trump’s lies about a stolen election, are unlikely to take kindly to any calls for restraint from Biden.
And any easing of social distancing would provide exactly the conditions that new Covid-19 variants, from South Africa, the UK and US soil, need to seed another, even more virulent wave of infections.
Vaccines offer a way out of the crisis. But with Biden saying last week that it will take until the end of the summer for the US to reach a level of 300 million immunizations, the possibility of months more misery is very real.
Debate over vaccine schedule
The government’s top infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, offered Americans some hope on Monday evening after predicting that the rate of vaccinations would ramp up quickly.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Fauci told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” But he also pleaded with Americans to intensify basic health precautions to stop mutant strains of the virus getting a disastrous hold before the full vaccine rollout.
Earlier, in a White House briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that while new infections slowed by 14.5% in the last week of January, that painted a misleading picture of the pandemic’s potential in the coming weeks.
“While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, they are counterbalanced by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in any month since the pandemic began, with over 90,000 deaths recorded in January alone,” Walensky said.
“Variants remain a great concern,” the CDC director said, reporting the discovery of mutant strains that experts fear could soon become dominant countrywide, telling of 471 variant cases in 33 jurisdictions as of Sunday.
The prospect that variants are more infectious and slightly more deadly has provoked a debate inside and outside government over whether protocols on vaccinations should change.
Currently, states seek to ensure that immunized patients in high-risk categories get the full two-dose schedule. But some experts are suggesting that as many people as possible should get a first dose to provide limited immunity in a bid to slow the spread of viral variants.
Fauci told reporters there were currently no plans to change the system. But Walensky left open the possibility that adjustments that were suggested by science could be made in the future.
“Until we have further data we intend to follow the trials and to use the science to say 21 days for two doses with Pfizer and 28 for Moderna,” she said, referring to two vaccines currently authorized by regulators for emergency use.