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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Joe Biden has vowed to get the pandemic under control, but if he ultimately wins the White House — whenever we finally know a winner — he would take office facing the same partisan headwinds that have undermined America’s response all along.

Why it matters: Biden would likely take office at the height of an acute crisis, and calls for more mask wearing or tighter social distancing measures would face deeply entrenched partisan resistance in much of the country.

What he could do: Experts say there are a handful of tangible policy responses a Biden administration could pursue to try to control the pandemic, which will likely be spreading wildly by January.

  • A big stimulus bill could provide more money for testing and help people afford to stay home, though Democrats' dwindling chances of controlling the Senate make that less likely.
  • Vaccine distribution would likely ramp up in earnest after Inauguration Day. One or more effective vaccines is probably the most potent tool a Biden administration would have.

What they’re saying: Aside from those more tangible solutions, experts put a big premium on communication and public messaging.

  • “The president’s real power in a situation like this is to communicate and be taken seriously and have people listen,” said Eric Toner, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “He can affect what the governors do by affecting what the people think.”

Yes, but: A lot of Americans — and Republican governors in particular — don't want to hear that message, especially if it includes more government-mandated safety measures.

  • Partisan attitudes about social distancing have already been baked in, and a polarized media environment has likely only exacerbated the problem.
  • The same people and politicians who have resisted voluntary mitigation measures, even under a Republican president, will make any communications effort an uphill climb for Biden.
  • “How would Biden be able to penetrate through that? The answer is he’s not going to be able to,” Columbia’s Jeffrey Shaman said. “So there is going to have to be, in addition, policies put in place.”

“I don’t see a President Biden declaring a national lockdown and the governor of South Dakota saying sure,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

The other side: Experts hope there's some room for a communication strategy to work, for people who are simply confused.

  • “What they need is FDR-like fireside chats. That by itself would be I think very important — helping people understand what we’re trying to do here. Right now, I don’t think they have a sense," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
  • “A lot of it can be turned around, because really what it all boils down to is what individual people do,” Toner said.

The bottom line: “It’s not that hard. The hard part…is the political will and cooperation issue,” Shaman said. “And how you message that in a divided America is hard for me to say.”

  • And if Trump wins a second term, expect more of the same — but with the help of a vaccine.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

J&J says its one-shot vaccine is 66% effective against moderate to severe COVID

Photo: Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot coronavirus vaccine was 66% effective in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 disease in Phase 3 trials, which was comprised of nearly 44,000 participants across eight countries.

Between the lines: The vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S., but only 57% effective in South Africa, where a more contagious variant has been spreading. It prevented 85% of severe infections and 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the company.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Fauci: "Confident" Omicron cases will peak in February
  2. Vaccines: Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker
Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.