The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s twin crises of the pandemic demand action, not anger

President Biden walks to the Oval Office on Dec. 20 after stepping off Marine One. He will address the nation on Tuesday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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President Biden’s hopeful promise of five months ago — on Independence Day he declared the United States was “emerging from the darkness of years” — is a fading memory as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads across the country. He now faces two crises simultaneously: one of social disruption and another of public health. In his planned speech to the nation on Tuesday, he must address both with the urgency they merit.

Weary from nearly two years of pain and sacrifice, millions of people are recalibrating their plans for what should be the most festive time of year. The Radio City Rockettes have canceled their Christmas Spectacular. The situation with schools is uncertain. Harvard University is going to remote classes for January, and so are Prince George’s County schools. A sense of foreboding is unsettling the nation, as Mr. Biden acknowledged in blunt comments on Friday: “For unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death — if you’re unvaccinated — for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.” But Mr. Biden should strive to persuade rather than to hector. Compared with last year, we have powerful, lifesaving tools, and he should urge the public to take practical steps to fight the pandemic: vaccination, face masks, diagnostic testing, improved ventilation and distancing. The pandemic will be stopped with action and common sense, not anger.

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Meanwhile, overburdening the hospital system to the point of collapse is a very real possibility. Acute care nurses and other workers are exhausted. New daily covid-19 hospital admissions are up by nearly one-third over the past month. According to a tracker at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, more than 100 communities around the nation have intensive care units already at 100 percent of capacity or more. Some states are already calling out the National Guard. Mr. Biden must urge health-care workers to stay on the job and not give up.

Omicron could also dent the hope that vaccination would build a wall of immunity to stop the pandemic. It is not clear whether omicron causes severe disease, but unvaccinated individuals are clearly most at risk. Those with two doses but no booster might be reinfected although they are probably not faced with severe disease or death. Those with boosters seem to be protected, but so far constitute just 29.8 percent of the fully vaccinated. Mr. Biden must address the disconnect and urge the public not to give up on vaccines, still the most potent tool for fighting the virus. Court challenges have tied up Mr. Biden’s attempt to impose vaccine mandates by large employers. If this is going to end up in the Supreme Court, then bring it to them speedily. The virus isn’t going to wait. Likewise, Mr. Biden should launch a massive new effort to put antigen test kits in the hands of all Americans — for free. His previous half-measure is not enough. Another ambitious idea: Get high-quality masks into every home in the country for free.

This is no time to debate whether to try this or that. It is time to try everything that works — and all at once.

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