President Joe Biden on Tuesday gave an update on his administration’s plans to counter the omicron variant of Covid-19. If you missed the speech as it aired, don’t worry: By now, you’ve probably already got the gist of it down pat.
The White House is left basically pulling at levers that have already been pulled the last two years.
The specifics may have changed — the administration announced that 500 million at-home tests will be made available for free — but the broad strokes of Biden’s announcement are similar to what we’ve been hearing for months: Wear a mask in crowded areas; get vaccinated; get a booster, if eligible; get tested, if you’re feeling ill.
"I know you’re tired," Biden said toward the end of his remarks. "I really mean this. I know you’re frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we’re still in it. We also have more tools than we’ve ever had before."
He’s right. Between the vaccines, pharmaceutical treatments, various testing methods and other capabilities, there are more ways than ever to keep the pandemic from overwhelming the nation. But it's also true that there aren't any new tricks left to try. The White House is left basically pulling at levers that have already been pulled the last two years. In effect, the Biden administration’s response to omicron involves doing what it’s been doing since taking office: assessing what’s been working and what hasn’t been and highlighting some methods at the risk of de-emphasizing others.
The biggest question, then, is what happens if the tools in the toolbox are enough — or, worse, if their impact has been blunted over time.
While many Americans have considered canceling plans to travel and gather with family over the next few weeks, Biden dismissed the idea — for most Americans, that is. He assured listeners that if they and their loved ones “are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as you planned them.” Biden added, in a perfect sound bite that I hope doesn’t come back to bite him: “You’ve done the right thing; you should enjoy the holiday season.”
Most of the new tweaks that Biden announced, including backtracking on his administration’s previous resistance to providing free at-home tests, involve scaling up accessibility to the aforementioned precautions. That includes increasing federal vaccination sites between now and January, deploying more vaccinators where there’s high demand and standing up more testing sites. Given the long lines for testing around the country, that’s sure to relieve some of the pressure that’s been building in the last few weeks.
All this is great for the people who have been — and still are — willing to take the steps necessary to keep themselves safe. That leaves very much up in the air what to do with the people who are, as Biden himself said, tired and frustrated with the restrictions that Covid-19 has made necessary, or, more concerning, how to handle the Americans who gave up months ago.
As someone who has still been wearing a mask indoors (except in the very occasional restaurant or bar) despite being vaccinated, I know I’m in the minority. As MSNBC columnist Noah Rothman noted on Twitter soon after Biden’s address ended, “I'm not sure either this White House or those for whom this speech was intended know how many Americans are going without masks everywhere, all the time, and have been for many months.”
Relatively few places have returned to any sort of indoor mask mandate recently. New York City and Los Angeles are the biggest exceptions. It’s unclear that many will follow suit when even major cities like Chicago are only just getting around to requiring proof of vaccination to enter indoor spaces such as restaurants and gyms. That’s to say nothing of states like Texas and Florida, where Republican leadership has made it an outrage to even even hints that people be required to take the precautions Biden referenced.
With that in mind, I’m worried Biden is starting to sound like a broken record to the people who would just like to be done with Covid now, thank you. You can ramp up access to frequent testing and boosters as much as you want, but — omicron or no — there’s no way to force these proverbial horses to drink. Neither a bevy of carrots nor an Occupational Safety and Health Administration-enforced stick has fully dislodged many holdouts.
The frustrating truth is that at this point, there’s no new panacea that’s going to unlock the pandemic’s end.
For now, the White House is pushing back on suggestions that it dropped the ball on omicron. While Biden may have vigorously denied the charge while taking questions after his remarks, testing capacity is nowhere near where it needed to be just before the holidays, and that was preventable. The tools that Biden praised may exist, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been deployed efficiently.
And just because the tools are available doesn’t mean people will necessarily take advantage of them, despite the massive evidence that they reduce infections, prevent serious illness and save lives.
The frustrating truth is that at this point, there’s no new panacea that’s going to unlock the pandemic’s end. Instead, the best we can do is keep shuffling priorities, trying to find the best combination to keep things from falling apart entirely. For now, this long, weird, supposed tail end of the pandemic is going to keep dragging out further, regardless of the number of tools at our disposal.