It’s not over. Nowhere near it.
If Joe Biden’s July Fourth fireworks marked a moment to declare the darkest days of the pandemic over, Monday was the day when reality dawned that the nation’s fight against Covid-19 is quickly sliding back in the wrong direction.
A hybrid version of American life that will pass for normality for the foreseeable future is coming into view, in which most of the vaccinated live and many of those who refuse their shots get sick or die.
In a moment of stark symbolism, new schools guidance released Monday from the American Academy of Pediatrics on mask wearing dashed hopes that kids robbed of a chunk of their childhoods by Covid-19 could go back to carefree schooldays this fall. The prospect of millions of youngsters over 2-years-old in face coverings in class epitomized how the nation is still under siege from the virus. It’s also likely to unleash yet another political culture war in some GOP states that abhor masking and have banned schools from seeking to protect the vulnerable that way.
In another shock to the national psyche on Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 700 points in its biggest drop of the year as alarm over virulent Delta variant infections hammered travel, leisure and energy stocks that had been juiced by the idea of a summer of freedom.
And at the same time, eyes were drawn toward Tokyo, where more worries loom. So often, the Olympics forge cathartic national unity thanks to athletes inspired to go faster, higher, stronger. Such a moment has rarely been so needed. But these Games are unlikely to offer that feeling of escape, as they often do — a sheen of reflected glory for the White House.
Instead, first lady Jill Biden’s trip to Japan later this week is likely to underscore the risk that this Olympic Games could be defined by the ongoing pandemic, as positive tests cloud Friday’s opening ceremony — including one by a young US gymnast. Still, the fact that the greatest sporting show on Earth will go on — without crowds — represents another moment of humanity seeking a semblance of recognizable life with the pandemic still raging.
All these developments, in many cases, represented a realization that hopes that the virus would be in the rearview mirror this summer were unfounded and that some kind of new national effort is warranted.
“If we don’t get a significant proportion of these recalcitrant people vaccinated, you’re going to be seeing a smoldering of this outbreak in our country for a considerable period of time,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Monday.
Canada takes the lead in the vaccine race
The sense of a nation still far from normality was highlighted by the news that Canada, which suffered a brutal spring amid a shortage of shots, overtook the US in the percentage of adults fully vaccinated. Unlike in much of the United States, there is little politicization of vaccines north of the border. In another reminder of how Covid-19 is still reshaping the world, Washington warned citizens not to visit the United Kingdom — after England lifted all restrictions despite soaring cases of the virus.
The miracle of vaccines — 48.6% of Americans are fully protected and there are especially high levels of vaccinations among elderly populations — means that the US is not in the trouble it was a year ago.
But the refusal of many citizens to get their shots — a trend deepened by conservative misinformation — means that many Americans face much more misery to come, even as many of their compatriots piece their lives back together.
Things were not helped on Sunday when former President Donald Trump — who seems keener to deepen mistrust in Biden than to convince his flock to get the vaccines he helped develop — added to the propaganda pile on vaccines.
Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN on Monday that he believed many people who are not vaccinated will end up being infected by the Delta variant “given how contagious it is — as well given that you are seeing concentrations of people who weren’t vaccinated living together.”
The surreal sense of a nation stuck in an odd late-term Covid limbo will be exacerbated on Tuesday by scenes of another billionaire — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — preparing to blast himself off the unhealthy planet in a personal rocket ship.
Fauci described the nation’s new reality as “really unfortunate, because what everybody wants in this country — and elsewhere throughout the world — is to be able to crush this outbreak in the sense of getting the level of vaccination so high that the virus has no place to go.”
While every American faces a dilemma in terms of the risks they will take — and how far to go back to normal in terms of family life and work — the new phase of the Covid crisis presents a particular challenge to Biden.
Presidents are defined by how they respond to the crises they face, and Biden has done almost everything he can to fulfill his self-appointed mission when he took office of ending the pandemic — including pleading with millions of skeptical Americans to get the vaccine before the Delta variant comes for them.
But it’s hard to see what strategic shift the President can engineer to improve the situation in the short term as conservative propaganda threatens to swamp government outreach efforts designed to market life-saving vaccines. Moving Republican voters who do not trust him, minorities who believe that past vaccine efforts were prejudiced against them and the skepticism of rural Americans, who haven’t seen much Covid-19 and think they don’t need to get the shot, is unlikely to be achieved by yet another presidential speech.
The President, who will appear in a CNN town hall Wednesday night, did take a step back from his claim last week that social media firms like Facebook were “killing people” with misinformation, which appeared to betray frustration that his efforts were undermined by things out of his control.
“Facebook isn’t killing people — these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday.
He appeared to be citing data from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that in March indicated about a dozen people were super-spreaders of anti-vaccine misinformation.
It was not clear why Biden stepped back. But perhaps waging a war of misinformation with Facebook may not be the most productive way to temper vaccine skepticism — especially at a moment when the pandemic is worsening.
More than 32,000 new cases of Covid-19 have been reported per day over the last week, a 66% increase on last week and a 145% jump on two weeks ago.
With such grim figures, Monday’s day of reckoning was perhaps overdue.