The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s glacial pace in recognizing improved conditions and adjusting its mask guidelines has delayed recognition of a remarkable scientific and political triumph: It’s possible that “normal” is just over the horizon.
The administration, burned twice by the emergence of the delta and omicron variants, is cautiously preparing for victory. The Post reports:
The U.S. has made “tremendous progress” in its ability to protect against Covid-19 and plans are under way for the next phase of the pandemic, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday.
“As a result of all this progress and the tools we all have, we’re moving toward a time when Covid isn’t a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat,” Zients said during a news briefing. “The president and our Covid team are actively planning for this future.”
In 13 months, the Biden administration has managed to fully vaccinate three-quarters of American adults, almost two-thirds of whom are boosted. It has also rolled out a variety of effective treatments. With infection and hospital rates dropping dramatically, the CDC seems ready to catch up with many states in setting a timetable for lifting masking and other restrictions, though CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned that a variety of factors must be considered, including hospital capacity.
Still, Republicans sound glum. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whined in a recent tweet about “needless school closures” and “unscientific child mask mandates.” Actually, nearly all schools are operating in-person, and majorities of parents continue to support mask requirements (no doubt because younger kids are not yet eligible for vaccines, and because not all students are yet vaccinated). In a recent CBS-YouGov poll, 58 percent of parents support mask mandates in schools while 36 percent say they should be optional.
Americans might take a while to readjust to the notion that they need not fear schools or worry that day-care facilities might close on a moment’s notice. They need to get used to returning to offices and entertainment venues fully reopening. When they do, the implications for the country’s mental health and economy will be hard to overstate.
The administration has argued that putting the pandemic behind us is the key to quashing inflation. In November, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen explained, “I think it’s important to realize that the cause of this inflation is the pandemic. It shut down our economy. It boosted unemployment to almost 15 percent, and we’ve been opening up in fits and starts.” She predicted that “when the economy recovers enough from covid . . . people go back to eating out, traveling more, spending more on services, and the demand for products, for goods begins to go back to normal.” She estimated that “if we’re successful with the pandemic to be sometime in the second half of next year, I would expect prices to go back to normal.”
There are inklings that the economy is ahead of schedule in returning to normal. In January, the economy added about 467,000 jobs, rather than losing jobs as many expected. And on Wednesday, there was another dollop of good economic news: The Census Bureau reported that monthly retail sales rose 3.8 percent.
Below the top-line numbers, there was more good news. Forbes reported: “Total retail sales in January were up 12.7% compared to last year with non-store sales up 8.3%. Apparel and accessories, food services and department stores showed a significant bounce back from January 2021 with sales up 22.3%, 27.9% and 11.5% respectively, as consumers resumed more activities outside the home including shopping and dining.” Recall that the lull in spending on services (when venues were closed and people did not want to go out) contributed to the price hikes and shortages on goods.
The White House has good reason to be wary of premature declarations of victory. It’s still possible that another dangerous variant emerges in the future, and the administration must remain prepared to respond quickly.
Nevertheless, Biden should be able to claim credit for a public health triumph. Victory is tempered by the stunning, heartbreaking loss of 900,000 lives to Covid over the past two years. But when the pandemic recedes, deaths diminish, life returns to normal and prices recalibrate, there will be plenty to celebrate.