A year in, experts assess Biden's hits and misses on handling the pandemic
When he came into office, Biden launched an ambitious seven-point plan for defeating the virus. Here's how experts score his results.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A year ago this week, the Biden administration released a pandemic plan. The national strategy for the COVID-19 response was 200 pages long and organized around seven goals, from restoring trust to reopening schools. Well, a whole year later, NPR health reporters Pien Huang and Selena Simmons-Duffin have been rereading the plan and assessing how the White House has done on each of those goals. Hey to both of you.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, let's start with what was in this plan. I mean, it was released on January 21, the day after President Biden's inauguration. Pien, just remind us - what were the top line goals back then?
HUANG: So let's remember the context here. When Biden was sworn into office, COVID cases had hit record highs. More than 3,000 people were dying every day. Vaccines had just been launched and were in short supply. Biden released this plan, and the first goal was to restore public trust by letting science and public health drive his COVID strategy. The next goal was to get the country vaccinated quickly. He also said they'd launch a comprehensive national effort to stop the spread with tests and masks. He'd use the Defense Production Act to help. He pledged to safely reopen schools, businesses and travel and to restore America's leadership globally and prepare for future pandemics, all with a focus on equity.
CHANG: OK, that is a long list of aspirations. Let's talk about how things actually went. Of the goals you just mentioned, what have the people you've been talking to been marking as the biggest successes so far, at least?
HUANG: Well, first of all, Biden's team has done a lot to make vaccines available. Here's Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association.
GEORGES BENJAMIN: I think the fact that they increased the number of vaccinators and the places for people to get vaccines was a success.
HUANG: Over 500 million shots were given out this year - 75% of the public has at least one dose. Many have three if they've gotten boosters. The other relative success, experts said, is that the administration used the Defense Production Act. Now, that's a law to get companies to prioritize the government supply contracts during national emergencies. And over the course of the pandemic, with both Trump and Biden, it's been used more than a hundred times. And that's really seemed to help, especially with vaccine supply.
CHANG: OK. Well, Selena, I want to turn to you because I want to talk about the so-so, maybe mediocre category. Like, where has there been some progress but not total success?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, OK. So the first goal with a mixed rating is reopening schools and businesses. Many businesses and the majority of schools are in-person, although the omicron surge has made cases skyrocket across the country. And sources told us it's pretty impressive that that's the case, but it's not a total success because there's still a lot of controversy, especially with schools. There have been recent teacher strikes and student walkouts. Businesses have trouble keeping people there to staff them. We also heard mixed reviews on the goal to curb the spread through things like masks and tests. Seema Lakdawala at the University of Pittsburgh has been tracking state mitigation measures, and she says there were missed opportunities here.
SEEMA LAKDAWALA: I do think that there may have been an overemphasis on vaccination as being the easy way to solve this at the cost of testing and other mitigation strategies that we could have continued to do.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The administration is starting to put more muscle into these efforts with, you know, the website for free tests and insurance coverage for at-home tests. But some of our sources said it's just too little, too late.
HUANG: And another goal in the so-so category is equity. Experts said that the president is committed to helping minority communities, low-resourced communities protect themselves and get health care. But things were so inequitable to start, it's hard to call that a success.
HUANG: Last year began with big gaps in vaccination and death rates by race, and those gaps have narrowed a lot. But who's able to test and stay home? Who can access early treatment? These are still pandemic privileges that are not available to everyone, so still lots of work to do there.
CHANG: Absolutely. OK, well, what about the goals that were the biggest misses?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: A lot of our sources talked about restoring trust as a big miss. The Biden administration hasn't always delivered on putting career scientists out front, for one. It's been criticized for that. The country is as politically polarized as ever. Misinformation is rampant, and that's a huge problem with trust. Another big miss is the global public health effort. The U.S. rejoined the World Health Organization after Trump withdrew, and the country has started to be out front in terms of global forums. But Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at NYU, is one of many critics on this who say it's not enough.
CELINE GOUNDER: We clearly have not vaccinated the world. We have missed, you know, multiple deadlines set by the WHO for vaccination targets.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The Biden administration has pledged over a billion vaccine doses to other countries, but it's only delivered about 330 million doses so far. And experts say the longer most of the world is unvaccinated, the more likely it is that new variants will emerge, and the pandemic will drag on.
CHANG: Well, we are looking back on a whole year. Obviously, there are still a lot of moving parts. But what do you think is the big takeaway here, Pien?
HUANG: Well, first of all, I should say that omicron is also soaring in countries that have managed better than the U.S., so even if the plan had gone perfectly, that country might still be struggling. But sources we talked with say Biden's team made mistakes, missed opportunities and faced limitations to their own powers, their ability to predict and control a changing virus. Some experts said it's time for a formal assessment, like the 9/11 commission, but for the pandemic. That would establish what's been learned, what to do differently going forward, and it would help the country do better moving through this pandemic and make it a lot more ready for future ones.
CHANG: All right. Well, you can read the full scorecard of Biden's initial pandemic plan at npr.org. That was NPR health reporters Pien Huang and Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks to both of you.
HUANG: Thank you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.