Why Covid-19 is always one step ahead of the US response

“The Biden administration’s response to the omicron variant is belatedly kicking into gear. The White House announced Wednesday that it would soon ship 400 million N95 masks to US pharmacies and community health centers to be given away. Americans can submit their bills for at-home tests to their health insurer for reimbursement, and on Tuesday, a new federal website launched that lets people order a few free at-home coronavirus tests.

Free tests and free masks are finally here — after some public health experts have been calling for them since omicron was first detected around Thanksgiving or even earlier. But the tests and masks might not arrive in Americans’ hands until the end of the month.

“By the time the masks and tests get there, the surge will probably be over,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California San Francisco, told me. It’s possible — but far from certain — that the omicron wave has already peaked. The average number of daily cases has dropped by 50,000 in the last week, a 6 percent decline.”

“Experts point to three main factors in the US government’s slow response to omicron: an over-reliance on vaccines, a failure to develop contingency plans, and the fracturing of the expert consensus on what the appropriate public health interventions would be.”

“There are limits on what the federal government can do under our federalist system of government. Mask mandates and social distancing restrictions are largely the purviews of state and local authorities. The Biden administration did attempt to take sweeping actions, such as a vaccine mandate for large employers, that got tied up in the courts.

“Public health experts were never a monolith. But early in the pandemic, there was a fairly clear consensus about what to do about Covid-19: Close some businesses, ban most large gatherings, mandate masks, and develop a vaccine. A New York Times survey of hundreds of epidemiologists found in the summer of 2020 that more than half were in agreement about the timeline for resuming many activities that had been stopped because of Covid-19, such as vacationing within driving distance or eating out at a restaurant.

But as the pandemic has dragged on, expert opinions diverged. In spring 2021, the Times ran another survey of epidemiologists, asking them how long people would need to wear masks indoors, the answers varied wildly; 20 percent said half a year or less, while another 26 percent said people would wear masks indefinitely, at least in certain situations. As the Biden administration debated booster shots this summer and fall, some experts were full-throated supporters of giving everybody an additional dose, while other prominent experts argued boosters made sense only for certain people.”


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