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The Morning Dispatch: Omicron Won’t Mean Return to March 2020, According to Biden
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The Morning Dispatch: Omicron Won’t Mean Return to March 2020, According to Biden

The White House tells Americans lockdowns won’t be a part of the strategy against COVID-19’s latest variant.

Happy Wednesday! First the plummeting Turkish lira caused a Nutella shortage, then supply chain issues forced some McDonald’s restaurants to ration french fries? What’s Declan supposed to eat now?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • In light of ongoing labor shortages, the Department of Homeland Security announced this week it will make an additional 20,000 H-2B visas available to U.S. employers looking to hire temporary workers for the winter season. 

  • The Census Bureau released an estimate yesterday showing the U.S. population grew just 0.1 percent in 2021, the lowest rate in the country’s history. “Population growth has been slowing for years because of lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, all while mortality rates are rising due to the aging of the nation’s population,” said Kristie Wilder, one of the Census’ demographers. “Now, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this combination has resulted in a historically slow pace of growth.”

  • The U.S. Secret Service announced Tuesday that nearly $100 billion in federal pandemic relief has been stolen or fraudulently obtained over the past two years, chiefly through the CARES Act’s expanded unemployment insurance and Small Business Administration loan and grant programs. Law enforcement officials claim to have clawed back about $2.3 billion thus far.

  • Harrison Floyd, senior campaign official with Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, set up a meeting where a Georgia election official says she was pressured to commit fraud. “The revelation directly ties a senior figure in the former president’s political operation to an extraordinary late-night Jan. 4 meeting in which a $16-an-hour election worker faced pressure to implicate herself in a baseless conspiracy theory, stoked by Trump himself, as he sought to overturn his Georgia election loss,” according to a special report from Reuters. The district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations of misconduct related to the vote count last year.

  • Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Tuesday the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had overturned a Trump-era legal precedent that would have required thousands of federal inmates in home confinement to return to prison once the pandemic state of emergency comes to an end. The inmates were released early to home confinement last year due to the pandemic. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Schroeder wrote in a memo the administration doesn’t reverse precedent lightly, but it had concluded “that the better reading of section 12003(b)(2) [of the CARES Act] and [Bureau of Prison’s] preexisting authorities does not require that prisoners in extended home confinement be returned en masse to correctional facilities when the emergency period ends.”

  • Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, has reportedly ordered his troops to retreat to Tigray as Ethiopian government forces continue to make gains in the country’s civil war. Gebremichael wrote in a letter to the United Nations he hoped the retreat would provide an “opening for peace,” but a spokesperson for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday expressed doubts about a ceasefire at this time.

Biden Inches Toward New Pandemic Paradigm

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In what was likely his final major speech of 2021, President Joe Biden gathered reporters in the White House’s State Dining Room Tuesday afternoon to outline his administration’s plan for confronting the Omicron wave that is already here. 

Biden detailed a series of measures aimed at bolstering hospital systems likely to be strained in the coming weeks and announced the federal government will purchase 500 million at-home COVID-19 rapid tests to be distributed to Americans upon request starting in January. But in many ways, the most significant takeaway from the president’s address was his shift in tone.

“[A] question that folks are asking is: Are we going back to March 2020—not this last March 2021, but March 2020—when the pandemic first hit?” Biden said, likely referring to the increasingly fatalistic tone creeping into Omicron news coverage. “The answer is absolutely no. No.”

In response to the coronavirus’ latest mutation, several governments in Europe—including Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Portugal, and the Netherlands—have either announced plans to reimplement, or refused to rule out, a return to restrictions and lockdown measures. Biden made clear yesterday that 2020-era restrictions are not in the offing.

“We’re making sure that COVID-19 no longer closes businesses or schools,” he said, touting his administration’s recently reimplemented (for now) vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers. “We can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

“If you are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well,” he added, “you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you planned it.”

For months, lockdown-skeptical infectious-disease experts like Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco have been arguing in favor of using hospitalizations as the key metric in determining pandemic policy rather than cases. Biden didn’t directly endorse that view yesterday, but—with new cases likely to soar to record highs in the coming weeks—he nodded in its direction.

“Because Omicron spreads so easily, we’ll see some fully vaccinated people get COVID, potentially in large numbers,” he conceded. “But these cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness. Vaccinated people who get COVID may get ill, but they’re protected from severe illness and death. … A case of COVID-19 for a fully vaccinated and boosted person will most likely mean no symptoms, or mild ones similar to the common respiratory viruses.”

Gandhi was pleased. “I thought [the speech] was great,” she told The Dispatch Tuesday afternoon. “I thought it was really hopeful. He’s basically reminding us that in no way we’re back to March 2020—which is not how the media has been covering it sometimes—and that cases aren’t hospitalizations.”

Biden continued to urge vaccination as the best prevention against hospitalization. According to a White House transcript of the speech, the president said the words “vaccine,” “vaccinated,” “vaccination,” “booster,” and “boosted” a combined 68 times. But given the mounting evidence of Omicron’s ability to produce breakthrough infections, Biden’s rhetoric yesterday focused on the vaccine’s true purpose: Keeping people out of the hospital and from dying.

“That is the shift that we have to make in our understanding,” Gandhi said. “[The vaccines] do not prevent all infections, and in fact, Omicron has really made that amply clear. … But the brilliant point to the vaccines—the reason we developed them, the reason that we worked so hard to get them—is to prevent hospitalizations and deaths. And they’re working beautifully.”

The latest available numbers from the Centers for Disease Control back this up. In the last full week of November, data from more than 250 hospitals in 14 states showed unvaccinated people were more than 17 times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people. As of October 30—based on numbers from 17 jurisdictions around the country—the COVID-19 death rate for the unvaccinated was 6.03 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 0.53 for the fully vaccinated and 0.14 for the boosted.

With this data in hand, the White House has in recent days ramped up its already aggressive messaging to the approximately 35 percent of the eligible population that is not yet fully vaccinated. “Over 400,000 Americans died from COVID this calendar year, and almost all were unvaccinated, almost all were preventable,” Biden said.

Jeff Zients—Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator—directly pitted the two groups of Americans against each other during a press briefing on Friday. “We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this,” he said. “For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”

Several states—Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan—are already facing significant strains on their hospital systems, and others are likely to join them as Omicron—even if milder than previous variants—explodes case numbers nationwide. To mitigate the effects of this crunch, Biden announced yesterday that the Defense Department will make an additional 1,000 military medical personnel available for deployment around the country, FEMA will work with states to expand hospital capacity as needed, and the federal government is on standby to release personal protective equipment from the rebuilt national stockpile.

“Our doctors, nurses, hospital staffs have gone above and beyond during this pandemic,” Biden said. “The strain and stress is real. I really mean it, it’s real. And we’ll have their backs.”

The president also used his speech yesterday to announce a reversal of his administration’s approach to at-home rapid tests, which, as Scott Lincicome has noted, are both costly and exceedingly difficult to find on store shelves due to high regulatory barriers. Three weeks after introducing a convoluted plan to require private insurers to retroactively reimburse Americans for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests—and three weeks after White House press secretary Jen Psaki scoffed at the notion of sending free tests directly to Americans—Biden about-faced. He said yesterday his administration plans to augment the insurance reimbursement by purchasing half a billion such tests and, beginning next month, sending them for free directly to Americans who request them online.

But given both holiday travel and the speed with which Omicron is already ripping through the country—it’s already overtaken Delta as the U.S.’ dominant variant and average daily cases have nearly doubled nationwide in just three weeks—500 million tests in mid-January are nowhere near as valuable as they would be right now. And when asked by a reporter yesterday if the current lack of tests represented a failure on his administration’s part, Biden had few good answers.

“No, it’s not, because COVID is spreading so rapidly, if you notice,” he said. “It just happened almost overnight, just in the last month. … I don’t think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did.” Professor Emily Oster of Brown University captured the frustration of the excuse-making in a tweet: “I cannot believe the answer to ‘Is it a failure that you didn’t have enough tests?’ is ‘No, because who could have predicted this?’ EVERYONE.”

Still, Tuesday brought with it a series of positive pandemic developments. Bloomberg reported the Food and Drug Administration could authorize Paxlovid—Pfizer’s highly effective oral antiviral—as early as today. Dr. Anthony Fauci said administration officials are weighing a change to public health guidance that would shorten isolation times for those who test positive with a mild breakthrough infection. And, although the usual caveats still apply, data points continue to stack up in favor of Omicron causing less severe disease, either because it’s inherently less virulent or populations have more built up immunity: 

  • A preliminary, pre-print study out of South Africa found that “compared to earlier Delta infections, after controlling for factors associated with severe disease, SGTF-infected individuals had a lower odds of severe disease,” in line with a 50 percent to 80 percent reduction in severity.

  • A preliminary, pre-print study out of the United Kingdom found “Omicron has gained immune evasion properties whilst possibly modulating properties associated with replication and pathogenicity.”

  • Hospitalizations in Denmark declined yesterday despite daily cases continuing to surge past double last winter’s peak.

  • The “vast majority” of French ICU patients are reportedly leaving within a week “in sharp contrast to the earlier Covid waves.”

Worth Your Time

  • In yesterday’s Slow Boring newsletter, Matt Yglesias outlines what he thinks Democrats should do on Build Back Better given Sen. Joe Manchin’s very clear lines in the sand. “[Manchin] will back $1.75 trillion in spending, which is a lot. But he wants it to actually be $1.75 trillion in spending,” he writes. “Progressives can be mad about this, but the fact is that $1.75 trillion in spending without phase-out gimmicks is better on the merits than what House leadership put together. Manchin is not ruining anything by pointing this out. He is making life harder for his colleagues in the sense that they will have to pick winners and losers. But it’s much better to do six good programs than to half-ass a dozen of them. And the reality is that $1.75 trillion is a lot of money; you can do a lot of good stuff for $1.75 trillion.”

  • As the NFL and NBA continue to adjust their COVID-19 health and safety protocols in response to Omicron, sportswriter Will Leitch makes the case that American society as a whole will soon be following their lead. “As we are learning, a ‘positive case’ in December 2021 means something very different than it did in July 2020. Sports may be the first public institution to not only acknowledge that, but to do something about it,” he writes. “The logical conclusion of the leagues’ new policy is that a fully vaccinated athlete who has an asymptomatic case of COVID will play in a game. This has surely happened already. It probably happened yesterday. But it’s one thing to suspect as much and another thing for the league to accept it. This may be the only path forward, though. If the leagues test every player every day, they’re going to detect so many positive cases it will be impossible to play—the rest of the season would look like the past chaotic week did. The leagues are now admitting what most of us are realizing but wary of saying out loud: COVID is just a part of our lives now, and if we don’t learn to live with it, we’re never going to be able to do anything.”

  • New York Times national political correspondent Jonathan Martin reported yesterday that Sen. John Thune—the no. 2 Senate Republican—is seriously weighing retirement next year in light of family concerns and frustrations with the direction of his party. “That Mr. Thune would even entertain retirement with the chance to ascend to Senate Republican leader illustrates both the strain of today’s Congress and the shadow Mr. Trump casts over the party,” Martin writes. “The senator’s departure would represent yet another exit, perhaps the most revealing one yet, by a mainstream Senate Republican who has grown frustrated with the capital’s political environment and the former president’s loyalty demands. The exodus began in 2018 with Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker retiring rather than facing primaries, and has accelerated this year. Part of Mr. Thune’s hesitation owes to Mr. Trump and the potential for the former president—who lashed out at Mr. Thune early this year when the senator rejected his attempts to overturn the election—to intervene in South Dakota’s Senate primary race. But the larger factor may be the longer-range prospect of taking over the Senate Republican caucus with Mr. Trump still in the wings or as the party’s standard-bearer in 2024.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s Sweep, Sarah announces her plans for the newsletter heading into 2022 and wonders whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is peaking too soon in the shadow 2024 GOP primary. Plus: Audrey on what’s up with all those gubernatorial primary challenges and a House race in Arizona that isn’t getting much attention. “Historically speaking, unseating an incumbent governor has always been extremely challenging,” Audrey writes. “That said, even in GOP gubernatorial primaries where incumbents are strongly favored to win reelection, Republican challengers—especially those endorsed by or aligned with Trump—still have the potential to shake up the race.”

  • For Tuesday’s Uphill, Ryan interviewed freshman GOP Rep. Blake Moore about his first year in Congress, the one-year anniversary of January 6, last month’s infrastructure vote in the House, the College Football Playoff, and more. What’s surprised Moore most? “Candidly, how much legislation gets done that has no chance of passing,” he said. “We’ve passed so much legislation that’s not going to go anywhere. What’s the point?”

  • David’s Tuesday French Press (🔒) provides a thoughtful and nuanced look at a recent report on the civilian death toll of America’s air wars in Iraq and Syria. “The New York Times report is important,” he writes. “It needs to be read. But when you read it, understand where the true indictment lies. The primary responsibility for civilian death and destruction lies with the terrorists who concealed themselves among the innocent. They used our own laws and values against us as a weapon of war. And when men are that evil, they leave even the most virtuous nations with few good options.”

  • Jonah invited Chris Stirewalt back on The Remnant yesterday for some Build Back Better punditry and a 2021 recap. Who was 2021’s biggest loser? What was the year’s most delightful pop culture surprise?

Let Us Know

Are you starting to come around to Jonah’s take from a few weeks ago that Omicron is actually good news, at least in the medium- to long-term?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).