Even in the compressed historical arc of the pandemic, July 1st wasn’t so long ago. The mood that morning, when President Biden’s COVID-response coördinator, Jeff Zients, opened the White House’s weekly pandemic briefing, was unusually optimistic. “Going into the Fourth of July holiday weekend,” he said, “Americans have good reason to celebrate.” Zients, a wealthy businessman in his mid-fifties, had built a reputation within the Democratic Party for fixing impossible operational problems. At the dais in the White House briefing room, he spoke slowly and exactly, keeping his body still, so that he seemed something close to an embodied talking point. Deaths from the pandemic were down more than ninety per cent since January, he went on, and the country’s progress had “exceeded” expectations. “This weekend, millions of Americans will be able to get together—back together, not just with their families and close friends for small backyard cookouts, but with their community for larger festivals, parades, and fireworks, celebrating our country’s July Fourth Independence Day and the progress we have made against the virus together.”
In retrospect, that optimism seems almost lurid. Even at the time, it raised eyebrows. When Zients appeared on “Face the Nation” three days later, Ed O’Keefe opened the interview by citing the Delta variant and asking, “Should we really be declaring independence right now from the pandemic?” Whatever the right answer to that question was—whatever the White House should have been doing—Zients hadn’t gone off the reservation. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had liberalized its guidance on face masks, making clear that vaccinated people should feel free to go maskless indoors. On June 2nd, President Biden had promised Americans a “summer of freedom” and urged them toward a “month of action” to meet his goal of having seventy per cent or more of adults at least partly vaccinated by the Fourth of July. After Independence Day, Biden delivered an address in which he praised the country for having nearly hit that target. “This is one of the greatest achievements in American history, and you, the American people, made it happen,” Biden said. “We are emerging from one of the darkest years in our nation’s history into a summer of hope and joy.” The President, perhaps self-consciously, added, “Hopefully.”
In the liberal drama of the pandemic, the figures in the White House briefing room on July 1st were the good guys. Zients would turn the microphone over to Rochelle Walensky, a pioneering infectious-disease doctor whom the President had hired out of Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital to run his C.D.C.; she emphasized the progress that had been made, even as she noted the remaining pockets of unvaccinated people who would be vulnerable to the Delta variant. Next up was Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom Biden had elevated to the job of White House chief medical adviser. Fauci’s presentation was different in tone, if not substance, from Zients’s. “Next slide,” he kept saying, to an aide, who would click to a new graph of data demonstrating that the existing vaccines were working well at preventing serious illnesses. As a matter of scientific process, the Biden Administration had clearly delivered on its campaign promises to restore integrity to the fight against the pandemic: the experts were at the lectern, carefully explaining vetted scientific data to the public.
Less than two weeks after Zients encouraged Americans to gather for “larger festivals,” a cluster of more than a thousand COVID-19 cases, including many among vaccinated people, were reported during Bear Week, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when rain and bad weather had forced celebrations indoors. The event sounded the alarm about breakthrough infections and eventually helped push the C.D.C. to reverse its guidance on masking. From the mature vantage point of August, as the national average of daily cases surpassed the peak from the previous summer, before there was a vaccine, it is easy to think that staging such a gathering was profoundly unwise. The suggestion in the early summer that freedom was here, even as the Delta variant began to crest, now seems at best premature and at worst damaging to public trust. Very simply: As a matter of public health messaging, did the Administration blow it?
In the first year of the pandemic, a simple line of scrimmage was drawn. Democrats generally believed that the Trump Administration was handling COVID-19 with a disastrous laxity and an open hostility to science, and that far stricter measures were needed to stop the virus’s spread. Republicans argued that such measures were too harsh and would be poison to the nation’s economy—some conservative commentators even argued that deaths from COVID were a risk the country should be prepared to absorb to keep the economy strong. The focal point of these arguments was often Fauci himself. To Republicans, he embodied the myopic point of view, as the free-market health-policy expert Avik Roy put it to me, that “anything that permits further transmission is not worth it.” For Democrats, he was a beacon of scientific policymaking in a Trump Administration characterized by its indifference to the truth. Everything that made liberals admire Fauci—his formality and age, the universal support he seemed to enjoy from scientists, his meticulousness (“next slide”)—made conservatives roll their eyes. That pattern still holds: Mike Schneider, who tracks online political spending for the Democratic consultancy Bully Pulpit Interactive, told me this week that conservative groups spent five hundred thousand dollars between April and July on ads denouncing Fauci and calling for his removal.
But the Biden Administration’s response to the Delta variant this summer has in some ways inverted the pandemic debate; instead of being attacked for doing too much, the White House has, this month, come under pressure for doing too little. On August 4th, Zeynep Tufekci, who studies the social impact of technologies at the University of North Carolina and who has become a prominent voice on pandemic policy, published an Op-Ed in the Times under the headline “The C.D.C. Needs to Stop Confusing the Public.” The evidence from overseas, she wrote, clearly suggested that the Delta variant posed a “great threat” to Americans, but the C.D.C., in May, “stopped tracking breakthrough infections among the vaccinated unless they were hospitalized or worse,” abandoning a good surveillance tool at a crucial moment. She also identified a pattern of confusing messaging from the White House. At the end of July, for example, Walensky insisted that masking was an “individual choice” for the vaccinated, just days before announcing that the Delta variant made it advisable for even the vaccinated to mask again. “Throughout June and July,” Tufekci wrote, “I felt the same out-of-body experience I had in February 2020, when Covid-19 devastated Wuhan and Milan while Americans acted as if it would somehow miss them.”
That same day, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., who had been the Times’ lead public-health reporter during the first year of the pandemic, published an essay with the title “What Is Biden Waiting For?” He excoriated the Administration for not moving more urgently to establish vaccine mandates and passports, and developing plans for booster shots should vaccine protections wane. “Why is this administration so hesitant about saving American lives?” McNeil wrote. “We are running out of time.”
Neither McNeil nor Tufekci is a medical doctor, and both are outsiders to the Administration. Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist at Bellevue Hospital, was a member of the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 advisory board and co-hosted a pandemic podcast with the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain. She is less sweeping in her assessment of the Administration’s public-health messaging. “Honestly, I think it’s an impossible job,” Gounder told me. But she also disagreed with some of the Administration’s recent decisions. “I think the C.D.C. did make a mistake pulling back on masks in May,” Gounder said, emphasizing that there had been no passport or verification system to insure that people walking maskless into crowded indoor settings actually were vaccinated. The public, she went on, should not have been so surprised by the reëmergence of the virus last month; for all Biden’s talk about a “summer of freedom,” the nature of a respiratory virus is to come in waves. Gounder said, “This is something that we should have started preparing people for a year ago: that things are going to change, that they are going to change a lot over time, and that we are in essence in an evolutionary race with the virus.”
The criticisms of the Biden Administration’s handling of the pandemic echo, in some unexpected ways, the criticism of Trump’s, especially in how much both Administrations counted on the vaccine. “We put all of our eggs in the vaccine basket to the extent that we did almost nothing until the vaccine arrived,” Michael Mina, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told me, recalling 2020. That the vaccine was developed so quickly, and was so effective, made it seem almost magical—the kind of gift that you might reasonably hope for from the most technologically advanced society in human history.
That focus on the vaccine has also defined this year’s pandemic response. “We got so focussed on seventy per cent,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, at the University of Minnesota, and another member of the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 advisory board, told me. That number, he said, was always an administrative goal rather than a medical one. “Show me any data that says seventy-per-cent vaccination in any country stops transmission. You can’t. There’s no data.” Then, too, there were scientific uncertainties about whether the vaccine’s protection would decay over time. And, even if it didn’t, seventy per cent partial vaccination, Osterholm said, meant “we have more than enough human wood for the coronavirus forest fires.”
Even before Biden took office, public-health experts and pollsters understood that the vaccination campaign might struggle to reach members of two groups: people hesitant to take the vaccine, often because they were worried about how it might interact with preëxisting health conditions or disrupt other aspects of their lives, and outright refusers. Many of the criticisms I heard this week centered on whether the Biden Administration had sufficiently prepared for a situation in which the vaccination campaign had been successful enough to limit much of the country’s mortality risk but not so successful that it snuffed out the virus: Tufekci emphasized the lack of surveillance of the disease, McNeil the decision not to mandate vaccines, Gounder the problem of verification, Mina the possibility that vaccines would grow less effective over time, and Osterholm the numerical insufficiency of a vaccine program, however technically impressive, that left tens of millions unvaccinated. Mina said, “What does it mean to have an entire global economy that’s really just depending on this spike-protein-based vaccine? That, I think, is very shortsighted.” He added, “There should have been a real emphasis in Trump’s Administration and Biden’s to figure out the other pieces.”
Developing a vaccine relies on only a few very technically adept people rather than a pattern of broad coöperation. In 2020, the message from the White House was often that the public should go about its business and let the scientists take care of the pandemic. In 2021, the message has been that the nation would have recovered fully if only the unvaccinated would do their part. Mina said, “It’s a public-health disaster, and you cannot beat a public-health disaster if you do not fully engage the public and get their trust, versus just telling everybody, ‘You have to get vaccinated, and if you don’t get vaccinated you are the problem.’ No. The virus is the problem.”
Biden’s election was billed as the most important step to reëstablish a scientific approach to the pandemic, and in many ways it has been. As McNeil, who covered the pandemic under the Trump Administration, reminded me by e-mail, “The public health messaging of 2021 is a LOT better than that of 2020. Let’s not forget that the official messaging we got included ‘It will all be over by Easter,’ ‘Herd immunity is just around the corner,’ ‘The cure may be worse than the disease,’ ‘More people are dying because of the lockdowns than from the virus,’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine will cure this,’ ‘Convalescent plasma will cure this,’ and ‘I’m a very stable genius.’ ” But removing a specific, truculent politician from the pandemic response didn’t rid it of politics. Instead, it left the experts in the position of trying to manage a politically divided country in which the virus was evolving and many millions of people simply refused to be vaccinated. It has turned the scientists into politicians themselves.