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The week the pandemic’s politics changed

14 mins read
President Biden at the White House on Friday.
President Biden at the White House on Friday. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — During a late January appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show “Real Time,” the former New York Times columnist and perennial provocateur Bari Weiss delivered a blunt take on the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m done with COVID,” she said.

At the time, about 2,000 people were dying daily from COVID-19 per day across the country, with the United States headed towards 900,000 deaths since the pandemic began (a figure since surpassed). Given those grim statistics, Weiss’s assertion struck some as both selfish and premature.

A Boston doctor deemed Weiss “a nihilist” and her thinking “dangerous and lazy,” echoing the widespread backlash her remarks engendered from progressives, who saw the Omicron wave as a sign of how devastating the coronavirus remained.

But not a month later, an increasing number of Americans and the leaders they elected, as well as a vociferous group of public health officials, are moving towards (if not yet outright embracing) a gentler version of the done-with-COVID mentality Weiss had espoused.

That shift was especially pronounced this week, with Democratic governors across the country lifting (or declining to renew) mask mandates, leaving the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as some of the last significant redoubts of a caution-first approach.

The realignment of pandemic politics was months in the making, reflecting both a growing societal exasperation with a pandemic many thought would be over by now and a growing awareness among Democrats that having listened to scientific expertise for two years, they needed to also listen to the voices of frustrated Americans who have been forced to shutter their businesses, mask their children and live with the low thrum of anxiety about a pandemic that had come dominate their lives.

“As we move toward this next phase, there’s a huge responsibility on them to get this right – and get it right for everyone and every community. That isn’t on these states; it’s on us,” a White House official said in justifying the CDC’s deliberative pace.

The official said that the Biden administration “is thinking about the next phase of this pandemic and is spending significant time and energy on the path forward” by consulting with both government and outside experts.

There is, of course, no way to know whether the coronavirus is really heading toward the exits. With more than 200,000 infections per day and hospitals in many parts of the country still crowded with COVID-19 patients, it would be difficult to say the virus has been relegated to endemic status, meaning it is a seasonal concern like the influenza.

“We’re not there yet,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday, a day that saw several states dispense with mask mandates. The warning may well be accurate from a public health perspective. For many, however, the warning is also beside the point. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that Americans “are increasingly critical of the response to COVID-19 from elected officeholders and public health officials,” taking out their frustrations on Biden and the CDC in particular.

Another poll, from Monmouth, had 70 percent of Americans saying it was time to move beyond the pandemic.

Predictions about the pandemic’s progress have been frustrated time and again. President Biden knows that better than anyone, having effectively declared victory over the coronavirus on July 4, as the Delta variant was on its way to undoing his promised “summer of freedom.”

Not wanting to see similar promises dashed once more, Biden and his top officials have spent much of the week repeating that they would continue to follow CDC guidance, which continues to call for everyone, including vaccinated individuals, to continue masking indoors, and for universal masking in schools. The insistence had one incredulous reporter on Wednesday asking Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki who was in charge, the White House or the CDC?

Even as the White House sees Democratic governors forcing its hand on the pandemic, it knows it cannot do anything that might look like the administration rushing the CDC to revise guidelines or simply ignoring guidelines it doesn’t like — the kind of thing Biden accused then-President Donald Trump of doing during the 2020 presidential campaign.

And so the same week that saw Democrats assert themselves also saw Biden increasingly isolated from his own party — and from the majority of American people.

Biden tried to defend his stance in an interview with NBC that will air in full during the Super Bowl on Sunday. “I’ve committed that I would follow the science — the science as put forward by the CDC and the federal people — and I think it’s probably premature, but it’s, you know, it’s a tough call,” the president said, referring to Democratic governors who have moved faster than he has to reopen.

Those governors, and some Democratic leaders, had given him plenty of warning that they were becoming fatigued with the pandemic, as were their constituents. Last fall, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was photographed without a mask at a jazz club. Breed met the coverage of her lapse with defiance. “We don’t need the fun police to come in and try and micromanage and tell us what we should or shouldn’t be doing,” she said.

That the leader of one of the most progressive, health-conscious cities in the country was tired of masking was only one of several signs that was missed by the White House, where masking rules and other precautions have been closely followed. Officials who attend meetings with the president are not given glasses of water at their place settings, as was previously a common practice, to keep them from removing their masks.

Another warning came a little more than a month after the Breed brouhaha, when close Biden associate Terry McAuliffe suffered a surprising loss on the way to what many assumed would be his second stint as Virginia’s governor. Instead, virtually unknown Republican financier Glenn Youngkin prevailed, in large part by harnessing parental frustration about school closures.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey survived a challenge on the same day, but the tight election results clearly left him rattled. According to the New York Times, the governor’s top advisers hosted a series of focus groups that left them convinced that the close call with defeat in a blue-as-the-sky state had everything to do with the pandemic, with voters describing “frustrations over public health measures, a sense of pessimism about the future and a deep desire to return to some sense of normalcy.”

Yet the moment proved inopportune for scaling back restrictions. Omicron arrived in late November, just as the Delta surge appeared to be receding. The new, even more transmissible variant dissipated any hope for a wintertime return to normalcy. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper opined hyperbolically that December 2022 had the ominous feel of March 2020, when the pandemic began.

Rhetoric of that variety seemed to exacerbate tensions that had been building for months. Millions of Americans had been inoculated, then boosted. They’d worn masks and kept 6 feet apart. And now they were tired, even if a new variant was infecting hundreds of thousands of people across the country every day. For the vaccinated, an Omicron infection was highly likely to result in a mild illness — or perhaps an infection without any symptoms at all.

As for the unvaccinated? Given the highly favorable attention his remarks received, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado may have most directly summed up the frustrations with those who continued to refuse their shots, despite mountains of evidence citing their safety and efficacy.

“Those who get sick, it’s almost entirely their own darn fault,” Polis said during a December interview in which he refused to impose a new mask order, arguing that it was unnecessary. The speed with which his comments were praised was a hint of how hungry many Americans were for a new approach, one that seemed to recognize a nuanced reality instead of harkening back to the dark days of early 2020.

Some public health experts have maintained that it is irresponsible to hold a picnic in the middle of a thunderstorm. Yes, vaccination rates should ideally be higher — but they aren’t, and it is the duty of elected officials to protect the unvaccinated as well as the immunocompromised and young children ineligible for vaccination.

“We know that variants and the surges that they drive are a hallmark of the pandemic, so we really need to be building our policy and public health infrastructure, not dismantling it, as we come out of the Omicron surge,” Dartmouth public health expert Anne Sosin told Healthline.

Tellingly, the White House was cool to the Polis approach, a foreshadowing of the wider conflict to come in February, when many more governors would adopt his position.

But that was still weeks away. The holiday season saw cases surging, while January began with a new round of school closures. Businesses pushed back return-to-office dates. Downtowns remained hauntingly empty. Owners of bars and restaurants wondered how they could survive another pandemic.

And then cases started dropping with a startling rapidity in a pattern that had been observed in South Africa, where the Omicron variant had been discovered in November. Public health officials warned that hospitals were still filling up and people still dying. But many Americans who were fully vaccinated, or who had natural immunity from having been previously sickened by COVID-19, seemed less interested than they had previously been in heeding those warnings.

“I don’t care about COVID anymore. I want my kids to have a regular life. I don’t want the masks,” a focus group participant told the veteran pollster Frank Luntz. “I don’t want them social distancing. I do not worry about them getting sick.”

When members of the National Governors Association met with Biden, it was to convey more or less that very message. “We need to move away from the pandemic,” NGA head and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — a Republican who’d been praised for his response to the pandemic — said to reporters. The governors had “asked the president to help give us clear guidelines on how we can return to a great state of normality,” Hutchinson added.

Next to Hutchinson stood Murphy, the New Jersey governor, looking unmistakably pained.