The White House is preparing to move on from Omicron.
Emboldened by falling case counts, the Biden administration is plotting a new phase of the pandemic response aimed at containing the coronavirus and conditioning Americans to live with it.
The preparations are designed to capitalize on a break in the monthslong Covid-19 surge, with officials anticipating a spring lull that could boost the nation’s mood and lift President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at a critical moment for his party.
Biden and his top health officials have already begun hinting at an impending “new normal,” in a conscious messaging shift meant to get people comfortable with a scenario where the virus remains widespread yet at more manageable levels.
But it’s a delicate operation. The White House is wary of declaring victory too early, only to get hit with another catastrophic variant, a half-dozen administration officials and others close to the Covid response said. Officials are also anxious that voters will be disappointed by the idea of living with an endemic virus under a president who once pledged to shut it down completely. And they realize that it will take vigilance — and billions more dollars from Congress — to prevent the nation from backsliding into crisis once again.
“We are moving toward a time when Covid doesn’t disrupt our daily lives,” said one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations. “But in order to get people to view the pandemic differently, they have to feel differently about the pandemic.”
There is little serious talk so far about disbanding the Covid response team, though some burnt-out aides have mused about leaving as soon as the spring. And as to what metrics will signal success against the virus, officials said they’re still figuring that out — and hope they’ll know it when they see it.
“It’s something we need to answer,” the senior administration official said. “If you talk to six doctors inside and outside the administration, you get six different answers.”
For now, Biden’s Covid team is counting on an expanding supply of vaccines and therapeutics to accelerate the transition to the next pandemic phase, allowing people to safeguard themselves against Covid-19’s worst effects before and after an infection. Regulators are expected to authorize the vaccine for children under 5 in the coming months — a major milestone in building out the country’s Covid protections. The administration is also stockpiling new treatments like antiviral pills that are shown to significantly cut the risk of severe illness.
And after initial hesitation over the need for ramping up the availability of at-home testing at the outset of the Omicron surge, the administration now views easy access to rapid tests as core to persuading people they can safely live with the virus.
The White House’s post-Omicron planning comes even as the U.S. is still grappling with an explosion of cases and deaths. The nation is logging more than 400,000 new infections a day, with hospitalizations hovering around peak levels. More patients are dying from Covid-19 than at any point since last February, when the vaccines were only just starting to roll out.
The surge has exposed Biden’s pandemic response team to harsh scrutiny over its belated distribution of tests and masks and further dented public confidence in the administration’s competence.
Yet even as the U.S. enters the third month of its battle with Omicron, officials inside the administration have grown increasingly optimistic that the worst of the surge is over. The White House has clung to data showing steep drop-offs in Omicron cases abroad — a trend already playing out in parts of the U.S. hit first by the surge. The vaccines have held up against the new variant in the meantime, sharply limiting its risk for those who have gotten the shots.
The U.S. vaccination rate still lags in comparison to other industrialized nations, further inflating the country’s grisly death toll. Still, after what some aides described as perhaps the most fraught period of their pandemic response, there is a renewed hope that the White House can wrestle back control of the pandemic.
“All these things add up, when you step back and look at them, to us being in a very different place than we were in February 2021,” the senior official said. “We have the tools to protect people.”
That shifting outlook has dovetailed with rising urgency over the need to reverse Biden’s flagging approval ratings. With a legislative agenda stalled and economic record clouded by generational inflation, Democrats now view an improvement in the pandemic over the next few months as the party’s only clear shot at boosting their midterm prospects.
Among administration officials, there is similar widespread belief that Biden’s popularity is closely tied to public perception of the health crisis — and that as the Omicron surge recedes, so will voters’ dissatisfaction with his administration.
“The best political strategy is not to have it dominate the news every day,” said Leslie Dach, a former Obama-era senior health official and chair of the Democrat-aligned group Protect Our Care. “You want a felt experience in November, where you’re back to leading a normal life and you feel like the president’s accomplished things and addressed the issues you care about.”
Yet even as it maps out the next stage, the White House has ruled out making a splashy show or major announcement regarding a hard pivot back to normalcy. There is fear among aides over repeating last year’s July Fourth “freedom from the virus” celebration — an event that turned politically disastrous weeks later when the Delta variant fueled a swift resurgence of the pandemic. And though it faces pressure to back off some of its more notable — and onerous — public health policies, the administration is also unlikely to drop its indoor masking recommendations, which are seen as among the key tools for preventing new outbreaks.
Officials instead described plans for a more subtle shift over the next several weeks toward touting Biden’s achievements in rolling out vaccines and treatments and emphasizing the everyday things that people can do again if they’re vaccinated — an approach that multiple individuals familiar with the response described as an attempt to convince people they’ll soon be able to relax after two years ruled by Covid-19.
“We can really get to a much more active, less fearful, more normal style of living” if cases keep declining, said one of the people familiar with the response. “We have to reset people’s expectation that they can get back to joy.”
That live-with-it approach is far from the vision Biden laid out in the opening days of his presidency, when many in his administration believed the virus could be eradicated through basic health measures and widespread vaccination.
But since then, the White House has run headlong into deep Republican resistance to its mitigation efforts, and struggled to combat extensive disinformation campaigns about the Covid-19 vaccine, in particular.
Combined with its own testing and vaccine messaging missteps and a mutating virus, there is little remaining hope of stamping out Covid-19 for good. While nearly three-quarters of adults are fully vaccinated, just 45 percent have gotten booster shots, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The vaccination rates for children are even more troubling; among kids 12 to 17 years old, only 56 percent are fully vaccinated. Fewer than a quarter of 5 to 11 years old have gotten full vaccinations.
And while the administration has enough supplies for the current crisis, three people with knowledge of the matter said the Omicron response has largely depleted the government’s Covid funding. Some officials working on the Covid response warn the administration needs vast stockpiles of vaccines, treatments and tests to ensure it’s not caught off guard by yet another variant.
“We are out of money,” one of the people with knowledge of the matter said.
The administration has floated tucking additional Covid funding into the upcoming bill that Congress must pass to keep the government open. But the amount needed to build out its supplies of vaccines and therapeutics could stretch into the tens of billions of dollars. It’s still unclear how much lawmakers will be willing to appropriate, or whether they’ll be able to reach an overall funding deal by the Feb. 18 deadline.