A few weeks ago I argued the Democrats should declare victory over Covid-19 and begin managing it as an endemic disease. I want to flesh out my reasoning and discuss how the emergence of Omicron changes the calculus.
I believe that Biden should make an address to the nation about Covid-19, with three basic points.
First, he should emphasize that vaccines and treatments are highly effective. He should say that for most of us the risks posed by Covid-19 are now manageable, and we can largely return to normal life. He should express his support for keeping schools open.
Second, he should emphasize individual responsibility and the role of state and local governments. He should urge people to get vaccinated, but he should withdraw the OSHA workplace mandate. He should say that social distancing and masking may sometimes be needed to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed, but these policy decisions should be taken at the local level in response to local conditions.
And third, he should identify contingencies and emerging problems and ask Congress to address them proactively. For example, he should ask Congress to make rapid tests and the Pfizer anti-viral drug freely available. He should ask for money for vaccine and drug research, to increase the supply of vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and to improve ventilation in schools so that closures are unnecessary. He should urge Congress to give the FDA more authority to respond quickly to public health emergencies, and (assuming he does not currently have clear legal authority to do this) to directly authorize booster shots for people after 2 or 3 months in preparation for Omicron. He should ask for money to expand training for new nurses and doctors, and for visas for foreign health professionals.
Vaccine mandates are polarizing debate and putting Biden in a no-win situation
The goal of this messaging is twofold. First, Biden needs to set realistic expectations for success. Covid is not going away. There is no guarantee that the coming Omicron surge will be the last, and people are tired of voluntary distancing, masking, and lockdowns and conflict over vaccine mandates. With reasonably effective vaccines and treatments available, we should begin normalizing life with Covid-19. We cannot panic and close schools whenever someone tests positive.
Second, Biden needs to quiet the rancor over vaccine mandates and shift responsibility for victory over Covid-19 from himself to individuals, state and local officials, employers, and the media. He especially needs to hold Republican office holders and conservative media figures to account.
Biden polarized the debate over vaccines by trying to enact a broad federal mandate. This let Republicans rally their voters against his federal mandate. He needs to shift the focus of debate to the failure of Republicans at the state and local level to manage the epidemic effectively. The debate over mandates is diverting attention from the rising death rates among the unvaccinated in Republican counties and states.
Life is not a philosophy seminar
Yes, the approach I am proposing is not ideal. As I have argued many times, the philosophical case for vaccine mandates is strong, and in a less imperfect world it might well make sense for the federal government to implement a general vaccine mandate of some sort. But life is not a philosophy seminar, and the fight for mandates has been lost politically. Republicans need to decide for themselves, on the state and local level, that they support vaccination. Left to their own devices, they may even decide that they support mandates.
In fairness to Biden and his team, it was not obvious that things would develop this way, but even the best laid plans go awry. It is fine for federal agencies to use mandates where the policy rationale and legal basis is clear, and it is fine for Biden to urge states and private employers to consider vaccine mandates, as long as he also emphasizes that it is up to them. He can even appeal directly to Fox News hosts to urge their viewers to get vaccinated.
But Biden’s effort to implement a general employment mandate through OSHA was a mistake. In addition to polarizing the debate, by pushing a mandate Biden is telling people that the current situation is not acceptable (hence the need for a mandate), and he is tacitly taking responsibility for ending the epidemic. But vaccines are not perfect, and his mandate will be delayed and probably killed by the courts, which will simply make him look weak. His position should be that his main responsibility was to get vaccines produced and distributed, and that he succeeded. It is now the responsibility of individuals to take the vaccines, and it is the responsibility of governors, local government officials, employers, and Fox News hosts to get them to do so.
The coming Omicron surge
What about Omicron?
Biden’s initial statement on Omicron was quite optimistic, and it may well age poorly during the Omicron spike. He needs to get ahead of this.
Much is uncertain, which Biden should acknowledge. He should urge states to give booster shots to nursing home residents and other vulnerable groups on an emergency basis. He needs to do this immediately, given how rapidly Omicron is likely to spread, both because it’s the right thing to do and to deflect blame if there is a major spike in deaths in nursing homes, prisons, and other congregate care settings. And he should urge everyone to get vaccinated, citing the likelihood of a massive surge of infections and the risk that hospitals will be overwhelmed. There is no point in pretending Biden can do more than this. He can’t.
In a perfect world it might make sense to distance and mask to keep Omicron at bay at least until we have time to give third shots to vulnerable people. However, it is not clear that general social distancing and masking will be very effective at slowing the spread of Omicron, given its apparently high infectiousness. In any event, people are shortsighted and tired of distancing and masking. Social distancing has largely been reactive during the epidemic; people distance mostly in response to increases in cases. Given how fed-up people are there is no reason to think that pre-emptive distancing and masking is possible today, certainly not on a national basis. There is no point in advocating for distancing and masking and then presiding over a huge spike in disease. This will just make Biden look ineffectual. When cases rise people will distance and local governments may impose some restrictions, and we will see if distancing is effective with Omicron.
Putting the onus on congressional Republicans
Finally, Biden should propose a package of narrowly targeted measures designed to keep people safe (make boosters easily available, vaccinate nursing home residents, etc.), to prepare for new variants (vaccine and drug research), to let people feel safe going back to normal life (ventilation, testing), and to increase the number of nurses and doctors.
He should make clear that his proposals are common sense and can be passed quickly, but only with Republican support.
Republicans in Congress will undoubtedly block whatever he proposes. Of course this is dysfunctional, but at least it will help educate voters about the root cause of the dysfunction. Biden pretending that he can promote bipartisanship when he cannot just makes him look inept.
On the other hand, if Biden proposes, say, emergency visas for foreign medical workers, and Republicans say “no”, he can hold them accountable if a new variant overwhelms our hospitals.