To draft this playbook, Zients and his Covid-19 Response Team had considered how to rebuild trust in government, set up mass vaccination sites, reopen schools and deal with racial inequities exacerbated by a global pandemic. One thing Zients hadn’t considered: just how difficult it would be to print the thing.
On the first full day of the new administration, Zients and his deputy, Natalie Quillian, circled the block for 45 minutes, unable to figure out how to get past the security that had sprung up after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“We walked in on Day One, literally walked 10 blocks to be late and be behind already in terms of executing,” Zients said.
“We didn’t have badges, so we were calling people trying to get in,” Quillian said.
“Yes!” Zients said. “Because we weren’t cleared to be walking in. They thought we would be driving in.”
“And then we couldn’t even find the people who could print it,” Quillian laughed.
Five months later, Zients’s tone was almost giddy as he and Quillian sat in his West Wing office, a bright room filled with family photos and a massive print of Nelson Mandela on the wall.
The reason should be obvious to any American who has gone to a party maskless and carefree in the past few months. There were 192,292 new infections reported the day Joe Biden was sworn in, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; last Friday, there were 13,265.
“I’m biased, but I do feel like it’s been a very, very successful effort,” President Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said in a phone interview.
Even to an objective observer, the administration has triumphed in its battle against the virus by most metrics — with at least one notable exception: On May 4, Biden set a goal of getting at least one dose of vaccine into 70 percent of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July.
A thousand invites had been sent to essential workers and military families for the White House’s holiday celebration. When the fireworks start, however, the country will be several million people short of Biden’s goal.
Still, considering where they were on Day 1, “we are way ahead of where any of us thought we would be,” Zients said, flashing a maskless grin.
That grin, plus his more-salt-than-pepper hair, has earned Zients occasional comparisons to George Clooney.
“You see it, right?” he asked his testing coordinator, Carole Johnson, when she walked into the office at one point during the interview.
“Of course,” she said.
Seeing it may require others to squint, but he’s at least got a handle on the script. Over the course of an hour-long interview, he talked in well-earned bromides about Americans (literally) “rolling up their sleeves” to do the work of getting the country vaccinated and seemed pretty satisfied with his line about how the team had (literally) “weathered the storm” when snow in February threatened to derail the vaccine supply chain.
This after starting out unable to even print the disaster strategy. (Cue the prop — thud!) Truly, a PDFs-to-riches story.
And yet, for all the celebrating, there are signs that the White House is beginning to bump against the edges of its power to end the pandemic in the United States. The pace of new vaccinations has slowed dramatically; in some states, the share of adults who have received at least one dose hasn’t scraped 60 percent, let alone 70. The long-term decline in new cases that began just before Biden took office has flattened considerably; in some states, infections have started to rise again. An increasing share of those new cases are from the highly transmissible delta variant.
“We have spent a hell of a lot of time in the last 18 months dying with this virus, and now we are trying to figure out how to live with it,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who served on Biden’s coronavirus advisory board during the transition. “There’s no end to it.”
The story of Biden’s Covid-19 Response Team is a success story. Even the Trump crowd doesn’t try to say it has failed, arguing instead that the former president deserves a lot of credit for that success. But it’s also a story about limits — about what the federal government can and cannot get done when it comes to bringing that story to an end.
If the first year of the pandemic showed the limits of an administration guided by incoherence, false assurances and magical thinking, perhaps what we’re seeing now is the limits of competence.
When the Biden team began the transition period late last year, it started looking for some kind of vaccination playbook.
“We kept looking for it,” Quillian said, “making sure we were talking to the right people and being in the right meetings. At a certain point we said, ‘It’s just not there.’ ”
“We were in the middle of a war,” Zients said. “And there was no war plan.”
It didn’t take a very stable genius to know things had been going poorly for Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force. The president spent the first year of the pandemic talking about miracle cures, leading bizarre news conferences and predicting that the virus would go away on its own.
Behind the scenes, the task force struggled to square Trump’s cavalier public posturing with the admonitions of the government’s medical experts, according to Olivia Troye, who was tasked with staffing the coronavirus response team under Trump.
In late February 2020, Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, held a televised briefing with reporters and gave a dire warning for the country.
“It’s not so much a matter of if this will happen anymore,” Messonnier said about the virus spreading throughout the country, “but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
That same day, Trump said he expected the 15 known cases in the United States would “be down to close to zero” within “a couple of days.”
Messonnier’s statement, and the subsequent plummeting of the stock market, made Trump go “ballistic,” according to “Nightmare Scenario,” a book about that administration’s response to the virus by Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. Troye believes this was why Trump ended up putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the team — “as a way to make sure no one spoke out of line like that again,” she said.
Hindered by a president who seemed to care about political messaging above public health, the team became defined by backbiting and distrust. Troye, who eventually left the administration and became a vocal critic of the president, said she was at constant odds with Trump’s allies, especially Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. Short, Troye said, once asked her to spy on Deborah Birx, who had the equivalent of Zients’s job at the time and whom Trump came to view with skepticism.
Reached by The Post, Short denied those allegations and called Troye “incompetent.” He pointed to the Trump administration’s leadership in the development of the vaccines that the Biden administration used against the virus.
“We accomplished a lot, even if the appearance of it was chaotic,” Short said. “I think unfortunately a lot of that has been overshadowed in some cases by the communication that went awry.”
There would be no spying on Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator. “I’m going to shoot straight with you,” Zients remembered Biden telling him on his first day.
Zients was the “obvious choice” to lead the team, according to Klain, having accrued years of government experience, including two stints as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and his more recent role of co-chair of the transition.
He enlisted the help of fellow Obama-era hands Quillian and Andy Slavitt. The newly assembled team took on the task of setting up federal vaccination sites, enlisting the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military. It communicated with pharmaceutical companies to up their vaccine supplies.
The White House set conservative public goals and then crushed them. Biden’s initial pledge was 100 million shots in the first 100 days; the administration cruised all the way to 220 million.
“We did what everyone says they do, but few actually do: we under-promised and over-delivered,” Slavitt wrote in “Preventable,” his book about the pandemic.
That ended when Biden set his July 4 goal of getting 70 percent of the adult population at least halfway vaccinated.
At the time, it might have felt like another under-promise; vaccinators were administering 2 million doses a day at the time. But the process of attempting to over-deliver (or deliver, period) would force Zients and his team into tension. Not with each other, or with the president, but with the public.
Biden didn’t pull the 70 percent number out of thin air. Part of the reason Biden liked the number, people familiar with the decision said, was that he liked nice round numbers. More than that, it was about where his medical advisers said the country needed to be to achieve something resembling normalcy. Seventy percent was not a prediction, Zients said, but an aspiration.
And an aggressive one, at that. The month before Biden came into office, only 34 percent of the country wanted a vaccination, according to polling done by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“It takes 18 months to convince someone in a public health campaign like this to take action,” said Courtney Rowe, the communications director for Biden’s response team. “We were trying to do that in less than five.”
They made deals with Uber to offer free rides to vaccination sites and teamed with dating apps to make “I’m vaccinated” badges. Budweiser promised that if the country hit the 70 percent threshold, it would give a free beer to anyone 21 or older.
Much of the communication and messaging about vaccinations, however, are beyond the power of the White House to control.
“If you’re, like, 21 years old and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go ‘No,’ ” Joe Rogan said in late April on his extremely popular podcast. Rogan later tried to back off that advice, but the damage may already have been done. One way or another, young adults have been a drag on the Biden administration’s vaccination efforts.
So has distrust in conservative circles. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who has declined to be vaccinated and had his YouTube account suspended for spreading coronavirus misinformation, appeared at an event showcasing supposed adverse side effects from the vaccine. “Somebody’s got to step up to the plate and tell people the truth that people don’t want to hear,” he told attendees.
Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said that for the country to be where it is today despite the obstacles is itself “an enormous accomplishment.”
“I would think if we get to 68 percent on an average, that should not be interpreted as failing anything,” he said. The bigger worry, he told The Post, is that we could be headed to something like “two Americas” — one that is vaccinated and protected from outbreaks and one that is not.
The Biden team has been advised by experts that mandates and vaccine passports might just backfire, making the vaccine skeptics more skeptical. Instead it has put all its effort into making the barriers to vaccination low enough that it can nudge people over them.
Team members have worked closely with Republican Frank Luntz, whose focus groups told them that the best way to persuade conservatives was to use medical professionals to get the message out. So instead of trying to get, say, Trump to do PSAs about the efficacy of vaccines, Biden’s team searched for trusted community organizers, local doctors and religious leaders who might help spread the message.
Even at that level, of course, the game of persuasion has limits.
“It’s impossible to overcome the politicization and partisanship that now affects every aspect of our lives, even public safety,” Luntz said. Even with a barnstorming effort across the country by members of the administration akin to a get-out-the-vote campaign, an increase in interviews with TikTok influencers and, yes, the lure of free beer, the slowdown in daily vaccinations was more dramatic than expected — down to around 500,000, a quarter of the pace from back when Biden set the July 4 goal.
“It went a little slower than we thought,” said Klain, who reiterated that persuading young people to get their shots has been the biggest hurdle. The chief of staff’s spin is that the administration has been a victim of its own success. “Because cases have fallen as quickly as they have,” Klain said, “there might be less of a sense of urgency from those younger people as they think about getting vaccinated.”
As for 70 percent, he added, no one is hung up on narrowly coming up short by a few weeks. It’s not as if the White House plans to stop pushing for vaccinations on July 4. That work will continue. For now, “we’re able to really enjoy an all-American July Fourth,” Klain said. “It’s an amazing turnaround in a very, very, very short period of time.”
A few percentage points haven’t changed the story — not in a way anyone will notice. Even Budweiser is willing to celebrate “close enough,” deciding to give away free beer anyway.