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Opinion President Biden is failing on covid-19

President Biden speaks on the covid-19 pandemic at the White House on Dec. 21. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Gregg Gonsalves is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and associate professor (adjunct) at Yale Law School. He is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.

I’ve lived through two pandemics in my lifetime, first AIDS and now covid-19. From those experiences, I know no one roots for our leaders’ failures in such crises. Their successes can be measured in lives saved.

That’s why it pains me to admit it: President Biden is failing on covid-19.

After weeks of urging by public health and medical experts, Biden spoke to the public on Tuesday about his plan to address the omicron variant, which has swept the world in just a few weeks. Many of us have been asking for a policy “reset” to ramp up U.S. efforts as cases mount across the country. We hoped this would be the moment.

Sadly, what we saw this week was an administration floundering and a president not in command of facts or willing to shift course in any substantial way on the pandemic.

The president’s main call was for Americans to get vaccinated. That’s a fine refrain, except we still have millions without a single jab. The president was eager to point out that under his watch, 200 million people were fully vaccinated — except we know now that we require boosters to protect against omicron and only about 60 million Americans have had that additional jab.

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Biden did indeed urge people to get boosted, saying they were free and available, but except for announcing a set of pop-up clinics around the United States, he didn’t articulate the plan to get this done. As for vaccine misinformation, he told its purveyors to “stop it,” which is far from the campaign we need to address the anti-vaccine propaganda circulating widely in the United States and the corporate reticence to take vaccination seriously.

We already know vaccines alone will not solve this problem. The president made a bet in March that vaccination could return the country to some semblance of normalcy, promising a “summer of freedom.” But as the delta variant emerged, the highly transmissible strain tore through the country, outpacing the speed of our vaccination efforts.

Public health experts called for more emphasis on a wider range of interventions, including rapid testing, masking and environmental controls, such as the upgrading of ventilation systems in buildings across the country. Yet such measures remain underutilized here in the United States. White House press secretary Jen Psaki even scorned those who suggested making rapid testing more widely available, dressing down an NPR reporter who made a suggestion of sending tests to every American household.

To its credit, the administration has since announced it would begin to send 500 million rapid tests to Americans in January, although it’s not clear whether the administration has put in an order for such tests. And at the scale promised, every American would receive a one-time delivery of no more than a single test at some point this winter. The president also claimed that schools need to be open and they are safer than ever, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now endorsed a “test and stay” strategy to make this possible. Except, the infrastructure and resources to carry out that strategy are simply not there for many school districts.

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On masks, the president suggested we should wear them even if we’re fully vaccinated. But again, he made no offer to make it easier for Americans to get high-quality N95 masks, which are far better at protecting people from infection than blue surgical masks or cloth masks in the age of omicron.

On ventilation and environmental controls? The president didn’t say a word. On global vaccination efforts critical to stopping new variants from emerging? Nothing either.

The president sought to calm people’s fears, telling them that they can enjoy the holidays if they are fully vaccinated without mentioning other layers of protection he and others will be taking this season. Though he wanted to project competence, what we saw Tuesday was a White House playing catch-up and doing damage control after weeks of criticism, but still unable to fully commit to a national mobilization to put this pandemic behind us.