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Analysis: Delta variant upends politician­s’ Covid calculus

- By Ricardo Alonso-zaldivar & Zeke Miller Ricardo Alonso-zaldivar covers health care policy for the Washington bureau of The Associated Press. Zeke Miller covers the White House with a focus on the Biden administra­tion’s coronaviru­s response.

WAshington—president Joe biden’s administra­tion drew up a strategy to contain one coronaviru­s strain, then another showed up that’s much more contagious.

This week—a month late—biden met his goal of 70 percent of US adults having received at least one Covid-19 shot. Originally conceived as an affirmatio­n of American resiliency to coincide with Independen­ce Day, the belated milestone offered little to celebrate. Driven by the Delta variant, new cases are averaging more than 70,000 a day, above the peak last summer when no vaccines were available. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is drawing criticism from experts in the medical and scientific community for its off-and-on masking recommenda­tions.

But the Delta variant makes no distinctio­ns when it comes to politics. If Biden’s pandemic response is found wanting, Republican governors opposed to pandemic mandates also face an accounting. They, too, were counting on a backdrop of declining cases. Instead, unvaccinat­ed patients are crowding their hospitals.

The Biden administra­tion’s process-driven approach succeeded in delivering more than enough vaccine to protect the country, sufficient to ship 110 million doses overseas. When the president first set his 70% vaccinatio­n target on May 4, the US was dispensing around 965,000 first doses per day, a rate more than twice as fast as needed to reach the July 4 goal.

Then things started to happen. While the White House was aware of public surveys showing swaths of the population unwilling or unmotivate­d to get a shot, officials didn’t anticipate that nearly 90 million Americans would continue to spurn lifesaving vaccines that offer a pathway back to normalcy. The spread of misinforma­tion about the vaccines enabled a festering fog of doubt that has clung close to the ground in many communitie­s, particular­ly in Republican-led states.

Yet on May 13, when the CDC largely lifted its mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated adults indoors, topline indicators were still flashing green. The agency said unvaccinat­ed people should keep wearing masks—and get their shots soon. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris celebrated by doffing their masks and strolling in the Rose Garden of the White House. Around the country, an everyday celebratio­n spread to coffee shops, supermarke­ts, beer gardens and restaurant­s. People planned weddings and music festivals. Drowned out in the applause were expert warnings that there was no way to tell who was and who wasn’t vaccinated, and a country restless for an end to the pandemic was essentiall­y being placed on the honor system.

“The single biggest mistake of the Biden presidency when it comes to Covid-19 was the CDC’S precipitou­s and chaotic change in masking guidance back in May,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commission­er and commentato­r. “It had the direct result of giving people the impression the pandemic was over. It allowed unvaccinat­ed people to have free rein and behave as if they were vaccinated, and therefore we have the surge of the Delta variant.”

“I think they were naive,” Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelph­ia, said of the CDC. “They saw it as a carrot, as a gift.”

Meanwhile, the Delta variant had arrived, and in a matter of weeks would become the dominant strain in circulatio­n. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently confirmed just how much more contagious Delta is. “If you get sick with the alpha variant, you could infect about two other unvaccinat­ed people,” she said. “If you get sick with the Delta variant, we estimate that you could infect about five other unvaccinat­ed people—more than twice as many as the original strain.”

Last week, the CDC reversed course on masks, recommendi­ng that even vaccinated people again mask up indoors in areas where the virus is on the march, now most of the country.

The immediate reason was a report by disease detectives of a recent outbreak in Provinceto­wn, Massachuse­tts. The Delta variant was to blame and a majority of those infected had been vaccinated. Although very few vaccinated people got sick enough to be hospitaliz­ed, the initial findings showed vaccinated people with breakthrou­gh infections were carrying about as much virus as unvaccinat­ed people.

The report fed vaccine doubts in some quarters. Wen, the former health commission­er, said the CDC should have put the Provinceto­wn report in a fuller context that showed vaccines do keep protecting. CDC did not immediatel­y respond to requests for comment.

Back on July 4 Biden proclaimed that the nation was declaring its independen­ce from the virus. In recent weeks, he seemed to have moved on from the pandemic. The president was focused on securing a bipartisan deal on infrastruc­ture and on selling the separate Democrats-only legislatio­n to carry out his ambitious domestic agenda. The number of White House Covid-19 briefings dwindled.

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