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Opinion We need to hear Biden’s Year 2 covid-19 strategy

President Biden is entering the second year of his presidency. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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As President Biden enters the second year of his presidency, he must articulate to the American people what our covid-19 strategy will be going forward.

Year 1’s covid-19 agenda was clear: vaccination, vaccination, vaccination. In many ways, Biden was extraordinarily successful. His team secured supplies and scaled up distribution so well that vaccines were widely available just months into his administration. But muddled messaging failed to fully make the case for vaccines, and the narrow emphasis led to underinvestment in other crucial tools, as evidenced by the recent dramatic but completely predictable testing shortage.

Year 2 begins this week, yet Biden still has not laid out his covid-19 plan. He needs to do it urgently. Specifically, what’s the goal for the United States? Is it to reduce infections or to return to pre-pandemic normal?

If the goal is to keep infections at bay, we are looking at another year of much the same. Biden must convince Americans that it’s worth staying the course as his administration seeks new ways to increase vaccine uptake and persuade states and locales to maintain mask requirements. The goal will be suppressing infections to a low enough level that covid-19 can be contained through testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

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The upside to this path is that it would save lives. The downside is that the United States would be in perpetual pandemic mode, with virtually all decisions being made through the prism of coronavirus transmission. For vaccinated Americans who are now at low risk from covid-19, another year of continued sacrifice would be a hard sell, especially when the deaths prevented are — for the most part — among those who choose to remain unvaccinated.

If Biden’s goal were, instead, to move on from the pandemic, his course of action would be very different. New infections would still be tracked and reported, but they wouldn’t factor into decisions about additional restrictions. The only two metrics that matter would be whether vaccines still work to protect against severe illness and whether hospitals become overwhelmed. We wouldn’t test asymptomatic individuals unless they are medically vulnerable. And we would end isolation and quarantine.

Biden would also announce a rapid off-ramp for masking. Yes, vaccinated people may still get breakthrough infections, but chances are they will be mild, and we don’t require masks to prevent the cold, flu and other respiratory infections. At the very least, a “return to normal” approach would mean that workplaces and schools where everyone is vaccinated should make masks optional. By finally getting behind proof of vaccination as part of removing masks, Biden can both incentivize vaccination and increase compliance should indoor masking have to return because of hospital capacity.

There are many who would angrily oppose this second strategy, including a large proportion of Biden’s base who see controlling covid-19 as their most important objective. They would be right to point out that this path would result in more infections and covid-related deaths, and it entirely ignores the specter of long covid. This path would also need to be accompanied by a heavy emphasis on treatment, so that immunocompromised people can emerge from lockdown, too.

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Of course, the major advantage of this strategy is that it stops further societal disruption and essentially ends the pandemic. Covid-19 changes from an existential emergency into something more akin to the flu: No one wants to get it, but most people also won’t change their lifestyles to avoid it.

Which goal Biden chooses will determine how the administration directs its efforts. For example, Path One depends on a massive ramping up of tests so that everyone can get tested twice a week; Path Two would need far fewer tests but a far greater investment in treatment. Path One requires paid leave and other incentives for isolation; Path Two emphasizes rapid booster deployment if vaccine effectiveness wanes.

To be sure, there are many unknowns that could derail either strategy, such as the possibility of new variants. But the same could be said about any crisis, and indecision, itself, is a decision, too. Biden’s approach to the pandemic thus far has been mostly reacting to situations rather than anticipating what’s ahead. His approval ratings on managing covid-19 are dropping because, I believe, the public is confused about where we are and because Biden has not been able to explain what’s happening and what course of action he has chosen.

The American people need to hear from our president about what’s ahead. After the omicron surge recedes, are we in for another year that’s more of the same? Or will we turn the page on this pandemic? Biden needs to pick a lane, and then — confidently and boldly — lead us through it.

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