Dec 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's COVID culpability

Illustration of aviator sunglasses with green COVID cells reflected in the lenses
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In its never-ending race to stay ahead of the coronavirus, the Biden administration keeps falling behind.

Why it matters: The U.S. is facing an overwhelming surge of cases driven by the Omicron variant less than six months after President Biden celebrated "Independence from COVID-⁠19," and experts say the administration could have done more to better prepare the country.

  • A common theme is that the Biden administration has been reactive, chasing the latest COVID crises rather than getting ahead of them.
  • Some experts say the administration's cardinal pandemic sin has been moving too slowly, while others say it's over-relying on vaccines.
  • But there's widespread agreement that the administration should have made cheap, at-home rapid tests more widely available months ago.

What they're saying: “There needs to be a commitment from the administration to make rapid, at-home tests available for every American to be able to test twice a week," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner. "500 million tests sounds like a lot, but it's not nearly enough."

  • Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, wrote in a Substack post yesterday that the Biden administration "continues to take a reactive stance, seemingly incapable of aggressive, bold initiatives that are under their control."

The big picture: Omicron has rapidly replaced Delta as the dominant variant in the U.S., and some places — including New York City and D.C. — are already seeing signs of its exponential spread.

  • But only 30% of vaccinated Americans have received a booster shot after a messy rollout, COVID tests are in short supply right when Americans need them for the holidays, and hospitals are already stretched thin by Delta caseloads and worker burnout.
  • Most ominously, only 62% of Americans are fully vaccinated. And while most experts think that the high rates of lingering vaccination resistance aren't the administration's fault, they were foreseeable.

The other side: Biden himself pushed back yesterday at insinuations that he's moved too slowly, specifically on testing.

  • "What took so long is — it didn't take long at all," Biden told reporters. "What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought."
  • Even though rapid tests have been more widely available and much cheaper — in many European countries, they're still experiencing testing shortages given the explosion of Omicron cases.

“There are regulatory processes in which we have to work within this country. That’s just the reality," a senior administration official told Axios.

  • "And we are doing all we can to follow the science — that is our north star — and take the steps we can to stay ahead of the virus at the same time. So you have to balance those two things.”

The latest: The White House announced yesterday that, beginning in January, it's making 500 million rapid tests available for Americans to order to their home via a federal website.

  • Experts praised the decision, but said it won't do anything to help with today's testing shortages and also won't be nearly enough tests to be used effectively, given the U.S. population of 330 million people.

The administration also announced that it will be deploying support to hospitals across the country. But hospitals were struggling to respond to the pandemic long before Omicron arrived.

  • "[T]his is lovely, but it would have been really nice to think about how to provide surge capacity a month ago," said Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and academic dean for Brown's School of Public Health.
  • “Everything in this plan that he released today is what I want to see. I just wish we’d had it earlier.”

The intrigue: The White House had wanted to make booster shots available to all adults eight months past their initial vaccine series beginning in September, but federal regulators and outside scientists said there wasn't enough data to support that wide of an authorization.

  • The debate dragged out for months, until eventually all adults were made eligible — just before Omicron's emergence, and the realization that two shots of Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines aren't very effective against Omicron infection.

Zoom out: If the Biden administration has underestimated the virus, it's certainly not alone in doing so — in America or globally.

  • “It’s hard to blame [the administration] for some things when, in fact, everybody was there," said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who served on Biden's transition team COVID task force.
  • “Omicron is a 210 mile an hour curveball. Basically I think that’s one of the challenges — we should be anticipating 210 mile an hour curveballs with this virus.”

The bottom line: Here we are on the eve of Christmas with Omicron spreading, tests scarce even if you can afford them, and a large portion of vulnerable Americans who are not boosted or not vaccinated at all — all too late to matter for so many.

Go deeper