going viral

No, Joe Biden Did Not Just Surrender to the Omicron Variant

Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On Monday, Joe Biden held a call with the National Governors Association to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic. The president told the assembled state executives, “If you need something, say something, and we — we’re going to have your back in any way we can.” He proceeded to cite various measures that the federal government was taking to combat the Omicron variant, including opening pop-up testing sites in high-demand areas; mobilizing 1,000 military doctors and nurses and medics; deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients; invoking the Defense Production Act to increase test-kit output; and providing 500 million rapid at-home tests to Americans, at their request, free of charge.

Biden also stipulated that the federal government’s efforts to this point were “clearly not enough.”

Before saying all of this, though, Biden declared, “Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at a state level.” In context, this was a bit of perfunctory pablum acknowledging the importance of the assembled governors’ role in administering public-health policy.

Out of context, it sounded rather bad. And an anonymous, anti-vax, anti-mask Twitter user who goes by “RealMac” isolated those two sentences of Biden’s remarks in a five-second video clip.

As of this writing, the tweet featuring that clip has been retweeted more than 13,000 times. Almost all of those retweets took the form of quote tweets, in which professional and amateur commentators declared that the video was dispositive proof that Biden was basically “Reagan without the charisma”; was telling Americans, “you’re on your own”; was declaring himself indifferent to “eldercide“; and was effectively implementing “the Trump response without the stimulus checks,” among many other things. The implication of all these disparate analyses was that Biden had just announced a major change in his administration’s COVID policy, disavowing the federal government’s responsibility for safeguarding public health amid a raging pandemic. This would not only contradict Biden’s campaign rhetoric, but also effectively recapitulate the Trump administration’s malign negligence during the pandemic’s early months.

Of course, as noted above, the actual message of Biden’s remarks was roughly the opposite of this: The president said that the federal government has not been doing enough to combat the pandemic, it will now be doing more, and should its efforts prove inadequate in certain regions, state governments should alert the federal government to the problem, and it will pursue corrective measures.

Depressingly, an inordinate number of misleading quote tweets came from left-wing journalists and pundits. If a progressive news junkie was on Twitter Monday, odds are their feeds were clogged with commentary on the president’s supposed disavowal of responsibility for public-health policy and this extraordinary development’s implications for our sorrowful republic.

To be sure, the viral spread of the Omicron variant is a bit more important than that of misleading tweets. And the failure of individual journalists to seek the clip’s full context before sharing dire interpretations of its import is understandable. On Twitter, the incentive to rapidly comment on apparently scandalous, ideologically affirming video clips — without first performing any basic journalistic due diligence — is incredibly strong; I’ve fallen prey to it plenty of times. And RealMac’s clip of Biden didn’t cut him off in mid-sentence or anything; the president really did rehearse a somewhat absurd, conservative trope in claiming that “there is no federal solution” to the COVID pandemic.

More importantly, the federal government has genuinely shifted some of its COVID policies in ways that primed the social-media response to Biden’s banal remarks. To take just one example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just revised its guidance on how long individuals need to isolate after testing positive for the novel coronavirus. The CDC now suggests that individuals, instead of isolating for ten days after a positive test, isolate for only five. The official rationale for this change is that data indicates the majority of coronavirus transmission results from symptomatic cases “early in the course of illness.” Yet that is not a new discovery. As the president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, explained on CNN, the shift largely reflected the concern that given “the sheer volume of new cases that we are having,” sidelining asymptomatic workers for ten days upon a positive test would have devastating economic consequences. Some understandably take moral exception to this calculus, insisting that workers should not be asked to increase their risk of illness for the economy’s sake.

I think this is a serious position. Although it also seems to me that some advocacy for it does not frankly acknowledge that mass vaccination and the Omicron variant have altered the relevant trade-offs. For America’s vaccinated majority, COVID-19 poses an exponentially smaller personal risk of severe illness than it did in March 2020; it is functionally a different, much milder disease (vaccines have failed to confer reliable protection from infection against Omicron, but they’ve continued to fulfill their initial objective: reducing the severity of illness). Meanwhile, the Omicron variant has all but guaranteed that COVID-19 will become an endemic illness and that reaching “COVID zero” is no longer an attainable goal. At the same time, Omicron is producing asymptomatic COVID cases at an unprecedented rate.

As a result of all this, the benefits of erring on the side of caution with regard to quarantine recommendations have declined, while the costs have increased. In March 2020, strict quarantine measures had the potential to banish COVID from the face of the Earth. Today, according to most scientists, they do not. And given the “sheer volume” of Omicron cases, if every asymptomatic COVID infectee actually isolated for ten days, the costs to American economic life would be profound. Such a mass quarantine would limit access to vital social goods like public education and physical therapy and jeopardize myriad essential services. Given COVID’s likely endemicity, the critical concern at the moment is preserving hospital capacity. In light of the staffing shortages in so many of the nation’s medical systems, sidelining asymptomatic medical workers for ten days when they test positive is not obviously in the interest of public health writ large: Once staffing falls below a certain threshold, asymptomatic nurses who tested positive for COVID a week ago undermine public health more by staying home than they do by reporting for duty.

This isn’t necessarily to assert that the CDC’s new guidance is correct. My point is merely that (1) federal guidance has always aimed to strike a balance between the competing goods of minimizing economic disruption and minimizing viral spread, and (2) it is not self-evidently wrong to adjust that balance now that the American population is less vulnerable to COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus is more easily spread.

In any case, Biden’s leftist critics aren’t wrong to think that a change in the administration’s posture is afoot. And their inclination to view the president’s rebalancing of priorities uncharitably is understandable. No CDC guidance will be sufficient to make the federal response to COVID just or equitable. The fundamental reality is that there is no non-obscene means of satisfying pandemic-era economic, epidemiological, and social imperatives in a nation where workers are not guaranteed paid sick leave, universal health care, or other labor protections common to most wealthy nations. No matter what balance the federal government strikes — whether it favors economic growth over public health or vice versa — the brunt will fall on working people. And this is all the more true now that the reigning Democratic trifecta has presided over the expiration of almost all the relief programs that had previously mitigated workers’ burdens.

Further, the Biden administration has committed many genuine errors of pandemic management. Contrary to some of the president’s rhetoric Monday, the prospect that this winter would bring a surge in infection — and with it, a shortfall of tests — wasn’t just foreseeable but widely foreseen. More could have and should have been done to increase rates of booster uptake in American nursing homes. More could have been spent on vaccinating the world. And right now, Uncle Sam could be pouring more federal resources into rapidly scaling up production of Paxlovid, an antiviral that has proven effective at drastically reducing viral loads in those infected with COVID and could therefore be indispensable to reducing COVID deaths and rapidly rehabilitating infected health-care workers.

For all these reasons and more, we need independent left-wing journalists willing to spotlight Democratic failures and agitate for reform. But when such media figures disseminate misleading, context-free video snippets, they delude their existing audiences and lose credibility with potential ones.

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No, Joe Biden Did Not Just Surrender to the Omicron Variant