By Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny, CNN
President Joe Biden is tired of wearing a mask.
Stepping into the East Room on Thursday, his face covered in black surgical fabric for the first time in weeks, the President made no attempt to disguise his disappointment at returning to the most charged symbol of the pandemic era.
“In a significant part of the country, you wouldn’t have to take one of these off because you don’t have to put one on,” he said, brandishing his mask in his right hand as a case-in-point of how things, in a matter of weeks, have gone astray.
Biden was understating where his administration’s new mask guidelines apply; more than 80% of the US population — about 274 million people — live in a county considered to have “high” or “substantial” Covid-19 transmission, where the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggests even vaccinated people wear masks indoors.
Yet Biden’s essential sentiment — that the country has backslid into conditions many once hoped had permanently passed — amounted to a stark turnabout for a President eager to move on. A CDC slide presentation, leaked on Thursday evening, only underscored the unwelcome direction the pandemic has taken six months into Biden’s presidency: the predominant Delta strain is highly contagious and can be transmitted even by people who are vaccinated.
As he left the White House for Camp David on Friday evening, the President was asked if he thought that even tougher guidelines and restrictions would have to be implemented to combat the summer Covid surge.
“In all probability,” he told reporters before walking, maskless, across the South Lawn to board Marine One.
A surge in Covid-19 cases driven by the contagious Delta variant has forced Biden to drastically rethink his approach to the pandemic, three weeks after he told the country on Independence Day the virus “no longer controls our lives.” In doing so, he is testing the nation’s forbearance amid changing rules and sometimes-confusing messages.
“I think you’re going to find the patience of businesses and the patience of a lot of other people running thin,” Biden acknowledged Thursday, a description his aides said could also apply to him. He has vented in meetings about a stalled effort to vaccinate the nation and grown frustrated at hitting what one described as a “brick wall.”
In a sign of the White House’s desire to control the messaging, top officials fanned out across cable news after Biden spoke Thursday, including his chief of staff Ron Klain and senior coronavirus adviser Jeff Zients, neither of whom regularly appear on weekday television shows.
The 25 days that transpired between Biden’s Fourth of July party, where 1,000 invited guests listened to the President declare near-independence from the virus, and Thursday, when he offered stern “straight talk” about the tragedy of vaccine holdouts, were marked by intensifying debate inside the administration over taking more urgent action to prevent the virus from again taking hold, according to people familiar with the matter.
What appeared like a dramatic shift over the course of days had, in fact, been slowly building within health agencies and the White House for weeks as officials sought more information about the Delta variant spreading across the country.
While Biden had been reluctant to take the step of mandating vaccines, he and his aides sought legal advice from the Justice Department earlier this summer on whether employers could require their workers to be vaccinated — including in the federal government. A legal memo sent to the White House on July 6 — two days after Biden’s Independence Day party — stated federal law doesn’t prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines, even if the vaccines have only emergency use authorization.
A disappointing turning point
The month of July could well be a turning point, but not in the way the White House had hoped. August is set to open awash in new uncertainty about the pandemic, his handling of which has earned him some of the most favorable marks of his presidency. A mix of frustration and exhaustion is palpable inside the West Wing, where advisers suddenly are wearing masks once again and no longer as confident about putting coronavirus in the rear view mirror.
As case counts rise in states where hesitancy remains pervasive, officials fear a scenario where schools are again forced online and work-from-home continues into another season. The worry extends to the economy, where a labor shortage already complicating the recovery could become even more troubling if the pandemic worsens. Tensions have been high inside the West Wing in recent days as officials have sought to confront a new challenge: their first significant backslide in progress against the virus.
Steps Biden had avoided for months are now suddenly in play, like vaccine requirements and mandates. A return to masks, viewed internally as politically perilous, was ultimately deemed unavoidable — though the administration stopped short of the “universal masking” the CDC recommended in the internal document made public this week.
Officials said they were persuaded to change the guidelines after seeing the grim assessments about the transmissibility of the Delta variant and its ability to be spread even by people who have been vaccinated, an alarming finding that led the agency to warn in internal documents that the “war has changed” against the virus.
“I think people need to understand that we’re not crying wolf here. This is serious,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN on Thursday. “The measures we need to get this under control — they’re extreme. The measures you need are extreme.”
After receiving that Justice Department memo, Biden held off on announcing a vaccine requirement for federal personnel for another three weeks as health agencies gathered more information about the spread of the virus and the new Delta strain. Without firm data on the science of the variant, it was difficult for officials to recommend a course of action to the President, who has been adamant that science lead his Covid-19 response but remains highly attuned to the politics of his decisions.
Disturbing new data
That all changed with the alarming data CDC officials presented to the White House this week detailing the Delta variant’s ability to cause severe illness and spread as easily as chickenpox. The document, which was made public on Friday, also cites studies showing even vaccinated individuals could transmit the virus as easily as those who haven’t gotten shots — though are still far less likely to be hospitalized or die.
That information wasn’t initially presented when the CDC changed its mask guidelines on Tuesday, drawing accusations of muddled messaging from some medical experts. Though Walensky conducted a telebriefing on the new guidelines, the White House did not convene its usual weekly press conference with public health officials.
“Mostly the right policy, terrible communication,” former Baltimore Health Commissioner and CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said on Wednesday. “I’m confused and I think many people are very confused about what exactly happened and why.”
That frustration is also present inside the administration, where officials have struggled to explain why the CDC held off on publishing data behind the changes in masking and testing for fully vaccinated people for over 48 hours. Several officials, who spoke to CNN anonymously, argued it should have been released when Walensky announced the policy change Tuesday. While there is consensus on stricter measures, officials lamented the poor communication to an understandably confused American public.
On Friday, as the CDC was releasing its data publicly, the White House said the agency had prioritized changing its mask guidance as quickly as possible once learning of the new science.
“The CDC’s first and foremost priority is getting the American people information as quickly as possible. And so that’s what they did on Tuesday. They got it as quickly as they can,” deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a daily briefing. “It was clear that vaccinated people have the ability to transmit and action needed to be taken quickly. And that’s why they did it ahead of releasing the data.”
A constant distraction
After seeking to shift the spotlight away from the pandemic in favor of his other agenda priorities, the new information about the Delta variant has forced Biden to return focus to the still-raging pandemic. Even the welcome news inside the White House that lawmakers had struck an elusive bipartisan deal on infrastructure was obscured by the renewed focus on coronavirus.
Biden hasn’t been shy in airing his annoyance.
“I’m talking about Made in America today. That’s all I’m talking about,” Biden said over the roar of Air Force One when he arrived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, shrugging off a barrage of shouted questions about whether he’d require vaccines for the military. “Tomorrow I’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about, including Covid.”
A day later, Biden lashed out again when asked why he said in May that fully vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks.
“I thought there were people who were going to understand that getting vaccinated made a gigantic difference. And what happened was: A new variant came along, they didn’t get vaccinated, it was spread more rapidly, and more people were getting sick,” he said as he walked out of the East Room.
Behind the scenes, Biden has become increasingly frustrated and feels as if the nation has hit “a brick wall” when it comes to getting shots in arms, according to people familiar with his thinking. In private meetings with top aides, Biden has raised one question repeatedly: “What’s the problem?”
The President gets daily updates on vaccination rates, hospitalizations and deaths. His briefings have focused lately on the formidable Delta variant, but advisers have also warned that if the stalled vaccination campaign doesn’t improve soon, another — and potentially worse — variant could surface, further derailing progress the US has made.
As of Friday, the pace of new vaccinations was the highest it’s been since July 5, according to CDC data, but half the country still remains unvaccinated.
The White House has long resisted getting involved in coronavirus vaccine mandates and credentialing systems, fearing doing so would only feed right-wing accusations of government overreach and undermine efforts to convince hesitant conservatives to get vaccinated.
But stalled vaccination rates — particularly in southern, conservative states — propelled the White House in a different direction.
“You don’t pursue routes that we announced today until you’ve gone through and given people the opportunity to get vaccinated,” one source close to the White House said, pointing to the importance of giving Americans the choice to get vaccinated before turning to harder-line tactics.
Biden asked the Pentagon this week to develop a plan for making the vaccine mandatory for military personnel, something aides once feared could set off a firestorm of opposition. And the President says it is still an open question whether the federal government can mandate vaccines for the whole country; the White House insists that option is not being considered.
Biden administration health officials increasingly believe that making vaccination mandatory or unavoidable is the only way to break stalled vaccination rates that are keeping the US from reaching herd immunity. Officials hope requirements within the federal government could encourage the private sector and local governments to follow suit.
About 6% of adults said they would only get vaccinated if required, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent monthly survey. Another 10% said they will “wait and see” before getting vaccinated.
Ahead of Biden’s announcement that he was requiring all federal employees attest to being vaccinated against Covid-19 or face strict protocols, the White House reached out to key union representatives to lay the groundwork for the decision, people familiar with the discussions said.
The conversations with both public and private sector union officials weren’t seamless, the people said. Some representatives raised concerns about the speed with which the White House was moving toward a position they previously hadn’t endorsed, as well as potential pushback from union members.
There was immediately blowback from some federal workers, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which said requiring vaccines infringed on civil rights.
Still, significant levels of public pushback from national labor groups before and after the announcement was scarce — something one official attributed to the decisive nature of the groups’ conversations with the White House.
“It was less of a ‘what do you think about this’ conversation and more of a ‘here’s what we’re doing’ conversation,” one of the people said.
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