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WASHINGTON — A weary-sounding President Biden used his Thursday remarks on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic to charge unvaccinated Americans with needlessly prolonging a public health crisis now entering its third year.
“It’s been a long road,” Biden said in his remarks from the White House, for which he was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The president said he would be sending military teams to six states experiencing surges in hospitalizations. He also said his administration would purchase 500 million more rapid diagnostic tests, which schools and other institutions need in order to stay open.
In the broadest sense, though, Biden’s options are limited. As if to underscore that very point, he asked people to wear masks, as he has been doing for months. “I know we all wish we could be done with wearing masks,” the president said. “I get it.” The remark could have come from the 2020 presidential campaign, a sign of how deep cultural divisions over the pandemic have become and how difficult those divisions have been to breach.
Indeed, the president seemed far more animated in recent days talking about the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, and the need to protect democracy than he did in offering all-too-familiar advice about the safety of vaccines and efficacy of masks.
Biden seemed most spirited in venting about what he called “the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” a phrase that has long been controversial but nevertheless reflects a challenging reality on both medical and political fronts. Having come into office promising to end the pandemic, Biden has been confounded by new variants (first Delta, then Omicron), Republican opposition and his own administration’s lack of preparedness, most notably when it comes to procuring rapid tests and high-quality masks during the summer’s all-too-brief pandemic lull.
“I know we’re all frustrated,” Biden said Thursday. That frustration has been evident in recent weeks as the nation wonders just what it will take to bring the coronavirus to heel. “ENDLESS,” blared a Thursday headline on the Drudge Report.
The president trained his own frustration on those who were “sitting on the sidelines and, worse, standing in the way,” a presumable reference to Republicans who have challenged him on masks, vaccines and other public health measures.
Once again he described the current COVID-19 conditions — record or near-record new infections per day, crowded hospitals, closed schools — as exacerbated by the millions of Americans who have refused to get inoculated. Numerous clinical studies and real-world scenarios have shown that people who are vaccinated — and especially so with the added protection of a booster shot — are extremely well protected against severe and critical disease when it comes to any strain of the coronavirus.
“They are crowding our hospitals,” Biden complained of unvaccinated people. Some public health officials believe that singling out the unvaccinated is both poor policy and poor messaging, but Biden is anxious to convey to the more than 200 million vaccinated Americans that the current Omicron surge does not pose a severe threat.
“The majority of the country is safe from severe COVID-19 consequences,” Biden said. But few are protected entirely from the social and economic disruptions that high infection rates pose.
Democrats recognize that their arguments and appeals could be losing efficacy in the face of widespread public disenchantment, but they also aren’t ready to declare that the pandemic is winding down, given their commitment to listening to scientific expertise.
That has left them few choices but to air their grievances, as Biden did on Thursday.