Joe Biden’s new administration is faced with a monumental task in curbing the deadliest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic so far in a race against time before a new, more contagious coronavirus variant threatens already strained US health resources.
The Biden administration has mere weeks to speed vaccine deployment, and convince more Americans to wear masks, wash hands and social distance. And it must be done amid a rocky transition, critical supply shortfalls, widespread new infections, shaky public trust and a vaccine rollout that “has been a dismal failure so far”.
“Let me be very clear, things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” said Biden, at a Covid-19 briefing on Thursday afternoon. “The memorial we held last night,” to mark 400,000 American deaths, “will not be our last one. The death toll will likely top 500,000 next month.”
More than 408,000 Americans have so far died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 24 million infected: by far the worst numbers in the world.To date, 16.5 million people in the US have been vaccinated, according to federal health authorities.
At the same time, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now issued stark warnings about a more infectious new variant of Covid-19, called B117. The variant has already forced England into a weeks-long lockdown.
Various scenarios could play out. In one model, Covid-19 infections decline in March, only to crest again in late April and early May driven by B117 infections. This model assumed there was no widespread community vaccination. In another model, B117 still overtakes current strains, but it declines alongside current dominant strains. The decline would take place in an environment of overall reduced transmission, because people maintain social distance and vaccines are distributed to about 1 million a day.
This endpoint can be reached, CDC modelers said, but only if people curb the spread of Covid-19 and vaccine uptake is high. Biden has repeatedly pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days, which would roughly match modeling by the CDC.
“We need to ask average Americans to do their part,” said Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 response director. “Defeating the virus requires a coordinated nationwide effort.”
In the worst-case scenario, already strained hospitals would be under more pressure, social distancing would need to be more stringent and extended, and more people would need to be vaccinated to make a difference. That scenario more closely matches England’s lockdown, undertaken when cases peaked in early January.
Further, while B117 is the only variant known to be more contagious currently circulating, it is not the only variant to be worried about. Strains identified in South Africa and Brazil also hold the potential to be more transmissible, CDC researchers said.
In the face of these new variants, Biden and his administration spent its first evening and full day in office building infrastructure to respond to the crisis.
“The issue he wakes up everyday focused on is getting the pandemic under control,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary at the first press briefing on Wednesday evening. “The issue he goes to bed every night focused on is getting the pandemic under control.”
Biden has signed a flurry of executive orders to try to control the situation, including setting up new federal vaccination sites, using the Defense Production Act to boost much-needed supplies, requiring masks to be worn on federal property and numerous other actions.
Zients acknowledged on Thursday that the Trump administration’s vaccine rollout planning was, “so much worse than we could have imagined”, the New York Times reported.
Buy-in by America’s state governments is also important for distributing vaccines quickly and equitably. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who was closely aligned with Donald Trump, held a press conference on Wednesday to tell Biden not to bother coming to his state.
“I saw some of this stuff Biden’s putting out, that he’s going to create these Fema camps. I can tell you, that’s not necessary in Florida,” DeSantis said, the Tampa Bay Times reported. “All we need is more vaccine. Just get us more vaccine.”
Further, the urgency to vaccinate people has led some public health officials to shy away from documenting that vaccine recipients are members of priority groups, such as the elderly or essential workers.
In Mississippi, the state’s top health official, Dr Thomas Dobbs, said requiring documentation is not something the state is “going to do” because he did not want to erect roadblocks to vaccination. He added: “We will get [the] vaccine out where we can as much as we can,” he said on Thursday. “It’s going to be a little bit lumpy, and that’s just the way it is.”