Editorial: Biden’s missed opportunity

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President Joe Biden on Thursday spelled out his administration’s detailed strategy to continue to fight against COVID-19, and the new omicron variant, heading into the winter. It’s a plan to keep the economy open and keep kids in schools while protecting the public through vaccinations and more aggressive testing.

By choosing to present these details in a midday speech at the National Institutes of Health rather than in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, however, Biden failed to use his most powerful tool — the bully pulpit of the presidency — to underscore the importance of working together to end this pandemic.

This was an opportunity to set a course for the country, to speak to the American people in their homes and calm fears about a worrisome variant still clouded in mystery. Sadly, it was an opportunity missed.

The messaging is important, but the details of the administration’s plan are far more critical and reflect Biden’s remarks on Monday that the omicron variant of COVID-19 is cause for concern, but not panic.

With so much still unknown about this new strain, caution seems like the appropriate tone to set. The United States recorded its first cases of the new variant this week. More will come and that data will help public health officials, from Washington to our communities, craft an effective response.

For now, however, the Biden administration is moving ahead with some important initiatives that should help the country weather the storm.

That begins with vaccinations and boosters, which remain the best defense against hospitalization and death as a result of infection. If you haven’t had your shots yet, please get them now. If you’re eligible for a booster, schedule that appointment today.

Biden noted that the country is in far better shape to handle this variant, and the expected uptick in cases this winter, than it was a year ago thanks to higher vaccination rates, more effective medical responses to COVID infections and a better understanding of how to fight the virus.

Where the United States continues to fall short is on testing, specifically the rapid testing that is a hallmark of other countries’ COVID strategies. In Europe, for instance, at-home tests are widely available and free. Here they are relatively expensive and often hard to find.

The administration’s proposal to have health insurance companies cover the cost of these tests may be one way to bridge the gap, but it is a rickety bridge that hardly inspires confidence. Individuals will be asked to jump through hoops for reimbursement and there is no guarantee that insurance companies will readily accept the costs.

Nearly two years since the virus emerged, it is almost unbelievable that this country, for all its wealth and know-how, can’t seem to hit the mark on testing. This, despite the fact that at-home rapid testing empowers people to make thoughtful decisions about whether to go to work, send kids to school or visit loved ones.

Beyond that, however, the president’s strategy reflects Americans’ discomfort with measures that close schools and harm businesses. The White House hopes its plan can protect public health by providing people the tools (vaccines) and resources (affordable, available testing) to make smart decisions.

That part is key, and why Biden’s Thursday remarks would have carried more weight with the full power of the presidency at his back. Speaking in prime time would reinforce the importance of this moment and remind the public that we should be working together — to fight the virus rather than one another.

The president’s detractors would likely criticize him for grand-standing and, for some, the specific points of this strategy would seem like much of the same. Get vaccinated. Yeah, we know. The president’s low popularity might not aid his cause.

But these are difficult truths that the country needs to hear, and steps that we should all take to protect one another from a disease that is still claiming about 1,000 American lives every day.

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