White House has begun a major overhaul of its COVID strategy, indicating that the country is moving out of crisis mode and into a more manageable phase of the pandemic.
The new strategy was expected to acknowledge that the virus, which has killed at least 936,162 Americans in the last two years, is less of an immediate threat to most Americans due to widespread access to vaccines, booster shots, and testing, as well as increasing therapeutic availability.
Simultaneously, the White House began working behind the scenes on Wednesday with some of the nation’s most prominent pandemic experts to simulate the various paths the virus could take in order to ensure the government is prepared.
In a private online meeting, Jeff Zients, the White House coordinator for the federal COVID response, led the group in discussing potential pandemic trajectories, ranging from the best-case scenario, in which the virus evolves into a mild flu-like illness, to the worst-case scenario, in which an aggressive new variant could evade vaccine effectiveness.
The online meeting on Wednesday was described by the White House as part of a series of outreach efforts with governors and business leaders to discuss the pandemic. Several former advisers to President Joe Biden during his transition after the election, but who had more recently called on the administration to shift gears and tackle COVID as part of the nation’s “new normal,” were present at Wednesday’s discussion.
Zients was there, as was David Kessler, Biden’s chief scientific adviser; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Centers for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; and Dr. Luciana Borio, a former senior official at the National Security Council and former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration who is now with the Council.
Several people familiar with the effort confirmed the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on private White House meetings. Among the topics discussed were what resources the United States might require to ensure access to life-saving therapeutics and how to shore up any supply chain vulnerabilities.
As Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, the timing of the White House’s announcement of its updated COVID strategy was unclear. Biden was scheduled to speak about aspects of the new COVID approach in his State of the Union address on March 1.
Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is developing new guidance to assist local officials in determining when it is safe to relax restrictions such as indoor masking mandates. When measuring a community’s ability to withstand increased COVID transmission, those updated recommendations, which are expected within the week, are expected to emphasize local hospital capacity and focus less on case counts.
The shift comes as voters tired of the virus’s restrictions put pressure on Biden and Democratic governors. Several states have moved ahead with lifting restrictions, despite the fact that the CDC continues to recommend indoor masking, particularly in schools.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the virus, while 52 percent approved. Democratic strategists have recently advised party officials to shift their focus away from COVID and toward inflation control. Officials close to Biden say the administration is still acutely aware of the delicate balancing act at hand. COVID-related hospitalizations are now nearing their lowest level since before the omicron surge, indicating that the country has reached a tipping point in the two-year pandemic.
At the same time, there are still concerns about another variant, as well as the lack of a vaccine for children aged 4 and under. Data on a Pfizer pediatric vaccine for the general population will not be available until April. Meanwhile, hospitalization rates for that age group have reached an all-time high during the pandemic.