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New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 may be the first glimpse of what a post-pandemic life will look like. And while the end of the pandemic is still months away, the Biden administration is eager to signal it is very much in sight.
“We’ve been through a lot this past year,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Monday morning as she released the new guidance at a White House coronavirus task force briefing.
“And with more and more people getting vaccinated each day, we’re starting to turn the corner,” she added.
The guidance itself is modest in scope, allowing for small groups of vaccinated people to gather without masks or social distancing. The guidance does not recommend travel or large social gatherings, even for people who are fully vaccinated. Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner, criticized the new guidance as “far too cautious” and “missing a major opportunity to tie vaccination status with reopening policies.”
Still, after a year of restrictions, the promise of a return to some normalcy may entice people to get vaccinated. At least 80 percent of people need to be vaccinated for the nation to reach the kind of collective immunity that would signal the end of the pandemic.
“Like you, I want to be able to return to everyday activities and engage with our friends, families and communities,” Walensky said at Monday’s briefing. She then made clear that such a return to normal was still some time away and was, to some degree, tied to the rate at which people are inoculated. According to polling by Civiqs, 55 percent of Republicans said they either would not get a coronavirus vaccine or were unsure if they would do so, which could slow efforts to end the pandemic.
“We have to see this through,” Walensky urged. “Let’s stick together.” She reiterated the same advice regarding wearing masks that public health officials have been making for close to a year.
Assurances that the pandemic will be over relatively soon are tempered by an awareness that former President Donald Trump spent nine months promising that the coronavirus was about to vanish. It never did, and the lack of a coherent public health response, combined with a delay in providing economic relief, left millions of Americans frustrated with the government’s approach.
There are now three coronavirus vaccines in circulation in the U.S., and a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package is headed toward President Biden’s desk. The two sunny realities have represented a kind of spring awakening for the new administration, which began as the nation struggled to emerge from a winter surge. That surge has leveled off, and the economy appears to be recovering too, with 379,000 jobs added in February.
The vaccines were developed by Operation Warp Speed, a public-private initiative of the Trump administration. While that effort proved a scientific success, the distribution of the vaccine was left to individual states, resulting in widespread chaos and confusion.
And Trump did sign a coronavirus relief bill in late December, but at $900 billion, it was much smaller than many had hoped for or said was necessary. And it came after months of fruitless negotiation that Trump’s own confusing imperatives seemed only to prolong. The same went for the former president’s push to reopen schools, which, while some argued it was grounded in science, was wrapped in so much partisan bluster that it was easy for many Democrats to dismiss.
Biden has worked to shore up the response in those three areas. Last week, he said all teachers and school staff should be vaccinated by the end of March; the coronavirus relief package he is about to sign will also include $130 billion to help schools reopen for in-person instruction this spring and next fall. That bill also includes money for families with children and the unemployed, as well as for state and local governments. The relief bill also includes $14 billion for vaccine distribution.
That guidance comes as daily vaccinations top 2 million per day. Herd immunity, however, probably won’t arrive until the fall. And the rise of new coronavirus variants could always prolong the pandemic, though vaccines so far have shown to be reasonably effective against new strains of the pathogen.
So even as the Biden administration preaches continued caution, it wants to assure Americans that their patience will be rewarded. As White House senior coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said at Monday’s briefing, “I hope people view this as a hopeful day.”
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