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The politics of getting to the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic

The White House says it's planning for the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Politically, COVID has President Biden in a precarious position.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
The White House says it's planning for the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Politically, COVID has President Biden in a precarious position.

With the omicron surge fading, the Biden administration is looking to the next phase of the pandemic.

"As a result of all this progress and the tools we now have, we are moving toward a time when COVID isn't a crisis, but is something we can protect against and treat," Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Wednesday. "The president and our COVID team are actively planning for this future."

Americans are eager to get to that future. Recent surveys have shown that while people are still worried about the threat of the coronavirus, an equal or larger number are ready to move on.

But the Biden administration hasn't yet laid out a roadmap for how to do that. President Biden told NBC News last week he thought it was "probably premature" that several Democratic governors were announcing the end to indoor mask mandates.

That followed a similar statement from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but on Wednesday she signaled the agency is on the verge of announcing new guidance, including about masking.

"I think people are tired," said Kathleen Sebelius, a former health and human services secretary under former President Barack Obama and former governor of Kansas. "I mean, two years is a long time, and two years when you think it's about to be over, [and] no, it's not. ... [W]e are in much better shape, let me make it very clear, than we were in March of 2020. We are in much better condition to deal with whatever comes next. But people are tired of this, and nobody really knows what the new normal is going to look like exactly."

Politically, the pandemic has Biden in a precarious position. His prospects are tied to his administration's handling of COVID, and he was elected, in part, to help set the country on a better course in dealing with it than his predecessor.

So it's in his interest to give Americans hope and show them a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But Biden has already been burned by painting what turned out to be too rosy a picture last summer. Then, he all but declared independence from the virus, only to be derailed by the rise of the deadly delta variant.

People need a "roadmap"

"Follow the science" has been a refrain from Democrats and the left, but there isn't unanimity among public health experts on when and how to get the country to the next phase.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a doctor and University of Pennsylvania professor who has advised Democratic administrations on health care, including this one, said he agrees with Biden that the recent moves to get rid of indoor mask mandates are premature.

He said there's a difference between things "improving" and being "improved." Emanuel bases that on metrics, he said — facts like the 10,000 people a week still dying from COVID or the lack of space in many hospitals across the country.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks on allowing the state's indoor mask mandate to expire during a press conference on Feb. 9. She was among several Democratic governors to announce an end to the mandates.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks on allowing the state's indoor mask mandate to expire during a press conference on Feb. 9. She was among several Democratic governors to announce an end to the mandates.

But he's critical of how the Biden administration has communicated that to the American public.

"We do need more national, and more coherent, national guidance," Emanuel said, "and I think that is an imperative. One of the things you hear from everybody now, it's the communication around COVID has been less than optimal from the start."

He said that public health and communication go hand-in-hand; it's not an "add-on."

"Part of being a doctor," Emanuel said, "is not just making the right diagnosis, making the right treatment, but engaging the patient, so that they actually take the steps necessary to get healthy, because if I make the right diagnosis, I prescribe the right treatment and the patient doesn't take it, no one is better off."

He pointed out that people need a "roadmap" for when they'll be able to return to a sense of normalcy.

"The public wants to know you're not just freelancing it," Emanuel said, "that you're really following important metrics that are meaningful and you have thresholds, so that people understand these are very well-informed decisions, and they themselves can look at the data on various websites."

"It's where people are these days"

Sebelius, who said she is also in regular contact with the White House, agrees with the governors who have ditched mask mandates. She said she would have made the same decision, and part of that decision-making is understanding people's wants and needs.

"I think what you've seen is governors moving out ahead of the CDC on eliminating mask guidance," she said, "and in many ways, it makes good sense. It's where people are these days."

More than that, Sebelius noted that governors are often more able to understand what's needed in their communities than the federal government and have more tailored policy initiatives.

"President Biden is looking at the country and trying to have a rule in place following science that looks out at the country," she said. "Individual governors have the ability to look at the borders of their states and say, if we're a highly vaccinated, highly boosted state and some people are refusing to do that, people can make individual choices about their own health risk and wear a mask if they choose. But to force everybody to continue to wear a mask just doesn't make sense right now."

Especially in states with relatively high vaccination rates, and for people who have followed the rules from the beginning — gotten vaccinated, gotten boosted — there is a growing frustration, Sebelius said.

"It is COVID fatigue for those at the front of the line," she said, adding, "and it's like, 'Why should I continue to do that when there are clearly people who have never followed the rules and seemed to be still walking around?' "

The State of the Union address is coming up March 1, and it is an important moment for Biden in this pandemic. He has to thread a needle between appearing too cautious and being too quick to move on, like last summer.

"You don't have to do a fly-to-the-aircraft-carrier-in-your-jumpsuit, 'Mission Accomplished' kind of speech," Sebelius said, referring to former President George W. Bush and the Iraq War, "but I do think people need help, and they need a sense that the summer of 2022 will be better."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.