Beneath the displays of confidence, however, lies a simmering anxiety. Biden officials and others close to the federal response have privately acknowledged that the next few weeks will determine whether the White House has truly entered a new era — or managed to misread the moment once again.
Despite the rise in Covid cases in 31 states, the administration believes there is little evidence that the rise, driven by the more contagious BA.2 subvariant, will reach the peaks of Omicron and Delta waves. who preceded it. More encouragingly, Covid hospitalizations have remained largely stable – a sign that vaccines and treatments ensure that far fewer people suffer from severe symptoms, and a boon to the theory that the United States can live more safely with it. the virus.
“The most important thing vaccines do is keep people away from the hospital and the morgue,” said John Moore, a virologist at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medicine.
Still, the growing number of cases has some health officials on edge. They have spent the past few days looking for clues that a bigger resurgence is on the way, baffled by the sharp increases that have already hit Europe and concerned that poor data collection is masking signs of a boom. similar already in progress here.
Indeed, a significant proportion of new cases go unreported due to the prevalence of home testing (individuals may test positive but not report it). It’s a reality that Jha cited to bolster the administration’s case for refocusing attention on still-low hospitalizations as a key metric, rather than infections.
But some experts working on the response believe the undercount is more serious than has been publicly acknowledged, with one administration official estimating the government is recording just one in six new cases. The lack of data has fueled internal concerns about exactly how the government should publicly signal the seriousness of the situation.
“They say, ‘We don’t know if this is something to worry about or not,'” a person close to the White House said. “But you can’t tell the public.”
In a sign of the uncertainty within parts of the administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that it will keep public transportation mask mandates in place for another two weeks. The decision represents a change from a month ago, when the administration announced plans for a new system determining masking based on Covid risk levels – a move aimed at aligning transportation policy with the framework. separate and less stringent from the CDC for indoor masking.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, some health officials argued that keeping the transportation mandate in place would be out of step with the administration’s broader policy approach and the country’s general mood. , said two people with knowledge of the matter. Others countered that lifting mask requirements might seem premature if the number of cases continued to accelerate and feared that, with no vaccine available for children under five, it could put young children in danger.
In a statement, the CDC said it had delayed changes to its transport mask policy to assess the impact of rising case numbers and the effect on hospital capacity.
White House officials, meanwhile, are grappling with their own personal tolerance for living with the virus. After the elite Gridiron dinner turned into a superspreader event earlier this month, some aides are re-evaluating their plans to attend the next even bigger White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Biden has also not yet committed to attending the rally, despite the White House’s insistence it is not worried about his potential exposure to the virus.
Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview that it’s not surprising to see pockets of outbreaks following mass gatherings.
“We know that 50 to 60 percent of infections are transmitted by people who will have no symptoms, people who will never have symptoms, or people who are in the pre-symptomatic stage,” Fauci said. “With coronaviruses, even though you are generally protected from hospitalization, it is not surprising that in a closed event like Gridiron, there has been an infection.
But among those working in government, personal worries about the infection are growing alongside efforts to mitigate its worst outcomes. Among the dozens of people infected in the administration and on Capitol Hill, Pfizer’s antiviral pill — which dramatically reduces the risk of serious illness — has been in widespread demand, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.
The complexities of the moment presented an immediate test for Jha, the new Covid czar renowned for his ability to translate pandemic uncertainties into easy-to-understand public messages. The 51-year-old has used his first few days on the job to try to do just that, in an effort to assure Americans that the administration has the pandemic under control — and to distract from the rising number of case.
“That’s why looking at hospitalizations is really critical because, at the end of the day, that’s what matters most to us,” Jha said on CNN Monday, during one of nearly half a -dozen television and radio appearances that day.
Within the administration, Jha has received praise for his kindness and measured optimism. But officials also acknowledged it was still early days and had yet to face heavy criticism.
That should change soon, especially as Covid cases continue to rise. The White House’s insistence that the crisis has entered a manageable phase puts it at odds with a faction of the public health community that argues that Biden is increasingly prioritizing political calculations over efforts to more completely eradicate the virus.
In particular, health experts have recently questioned the administration’s masking recommendations, arguing that linking mask-wearing to increased hospitalizations is far too lax an approach to avoid a future surge.
“The CDC’s proposed threshold for hospitalization is too high,” said Jeffrey Duchin, chief health officer for Seattle and King County, Washington. “Waiting for this high standard to implement a measure… defeats the purpose of early action.”
Perhaps more importantly, administration officials and health experts have said that despite the White House’s emphasis on maintaining calm, its pandemic fate will hinge on creating enough of an emergency to convince Congress to fund its response efforts — and persuade Americans to keep getting vaccinated.
The administration has yet to secure the tens of billions of dollars needed to stockpile essential vaccines and treatments to mitigate the impact of the virus. And after spending the first year of Biden’s presidency on an all-out mission to vaccinate the country, the campaign has lost ground. More than half of all adults still haven’t received their first booster, CDC data shows — and at least for now, the administration appears to be at a loss for new ideas.
“There is a narrative that this is under control,” the person close to the White House said. “But I don’t know how you get that message across without having an incredibly aggressive public stance on boosters. And we won’t. »
Erin Banco and Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.