Americans need help moving to the next phase

You may have already understood it: the pandemic will not have a quiet end. The coronavirus will not raise a white flag. There will be no peace treaty, no parade, no CDC announcement that the United States is done worrying about COVID. You will not get a fence. The signs remain too mixed. The virus continues to spread, although increased vaccine eligibility, booster shots and improved medical treatments limit the damage the virus can cause. The death rate has been falling since late September, but more than 1,000 Americans have died every day for most of the past two weeks. A minority of Americans still act irresponsibly; a handful of people would even rather lose their jobs than take a free, life-saving vaccine.

But America remains in limbo for another reason: The Biden administration has yet to announce the end of the emergency. Even to contemplate it seems disrespectful to the nearly 800,000 dead. The Delta variant and vaccine resistance scuttled President Joe Biden’s hopes of declaring a “summer of joy” on July 4. Yet even if the threat still exists, the country must be pushed into the recovery phase – and only elected leaders can provide that boost.

Biden and his party have pledged to “follow the science” in the fight against the coronavirus. Their adherence to professionalism was a point of distinction between them and former President Donald Trump, who at the onset of the pandemic denied the severity of the viral threat and refused to help states acquire essential supplies.

Yet the question of when a crisis is over is not an objective one that Anthony Fauci or any other scientific expert can decide. What is an acceptable compromise between preventing infections and promoting the resumption of pre-pandemic routines? Should employers and school districts base their policies on the expectations of those most risk averse or those with higher tolerance?

Meanwhile, the perception that the emergency is not over, and may never end, also has consequences. Some Americans who act with caution, such as regularly hiding outdoors, even after being vaccinated, seem more worried than they should be. In areas with high immunization rates, schools that extend mask terms longer than necessary or re-establish rigid socialization rules after a few positive infections risk harming student education with marginal health benefit. public. Americans don’t need to throw out all the precautions; indeed, efforts to promote immunization, whether by gently cajoling vaccine refusals or openly lobbying employers, are essential to ending the emergency. We urgently need to focus on our recovery and assess how careful we need to be when the virus becomes endemic, but widely available vaccines dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.

In a normal disaster management setting, immediate harm, such as a terrorist attack, environmental disaster, earthquake, or hurricane, triggers an initial multi-faceted government response: search and rescue, mass shelter and medical care. emergency. Firefighters, police, health officials and other professionals step in to protect people who cannot protect themselves. But this period gives way to a mode of recovery, in which the emphasis is on mourning the dead, rebuilding damaged physical and social infrastructure and revitalizing the economy. The first responders who take command early are replaced over time by builders and planners who, in consultation with the public, develop a long-term plan to get the systems back up and running. Many of the decisions that must be made in recovery are judgment calls, mere guesses about the best use of resources. Indeed, one could qualify them as political.

I was working in the Department of Homeland Security when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Coast Guard oversaw immediate efforts to deal with the oil spill, the largest marine oil disaster in the history of the United States. But to oversee the recovery, President Barack Obama brought in a politician: Secretary of the Navy and former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus. Mabus’ job was not to pick up tarballs by the sea. It was to oversee the billions of dollars in recovery funds that BP had set up to support reconstruction efforts in the industries of the fishing and oil, the clean-up of marshes and beaches, and the equitable distribution of funds to Native American and Black communities affected by the spill. .

Likewise, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, organized the government’s recovery efforts. He did not save people from drowning; other professionals had taken care of the initial phase. Donovan’s mandate was to distribute post-Sandy relief supplies to better prepare communities for the future. These roles do not require specialized technical expertise, but a capacity to mediate between competing values ​​and priorities.

Likewise, the enormous challenges of America’s pandemic recovery – lost learning and lost staff in schools, great labor exodus and profound disruption of office life – have no scientific solutions. We need to embrace the political nature of this recovery, and it is not anti-science to recognize that not all decisions are made by science.

Elected officials are doing science a disservice by putting fundamentally political decisions in the hands of technical experts. The recent backlash by local and state authorities against the original limited guidance from the federal government on eligibility for booster injections underscores the problem. Biden himself was pushing for boosters. He clearly understood that in the face of organized resistance to vaccines, many Americans who had rigorously observed safety protocols for a year and a half would want to maximize their own immunity before resuming travel, in-person work, and other activities. . Many public health experts, on the other hand, have expressed skepticism about offering boosters to American adults rather than sending doses of the vaccine overseas. Two leading FDA vaccine regulators have resigned in protest against this Politics referred to as “Biden’s descending abseil plan”.

In September, the FDA and CDC only authorized booster shots for certain high-risk groups. But the agencies’ task probably should have been limited to assessing whether the recalls were safe and would help the people to whom they would be administered; the answer on both points was obviously yes. After even Democratic mayors and governors backed down from limitations on booster injections, the FDA and CDC finally opened the recalls to all adults.

The confusion was preventable. Elected officials must make political decisions without hiding behind the white coats of scientific advisers. Doing it bluntly, in the end, will protect the integrity of science.

The coronavirus came like a tidal wave, but its worst effects are now wearing off, at least for those vaccinated. The United States has entered a phase that I described previously as a adaptive recovery, a long period during which the virus persists but Americans are finding the best way to deal with it. The choice the United States now faces is whether it should recognize the progress we have made and the subjective, political, and unscientific nature of the value judgments we face.

About Mike Stevenson

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