The Biden administration is confronting its first surge of Covid-19 with few public health options and even some of its Democratic allies ignoring pleas to slow down reopening their states.
New infections are up 20 percent in the past two weeks, spurred by more contagious strains of the virus, increased travel and a loosening of public health restrictions across the country.
That’s left President Joe Biden fighting two battles: speeding up the vaccine rollout while pushing crisis-weary states to tamp down infections through mask mandates, social distancing and other measures in the meantime.
Losing either could not only jeopardize Biden’s promise for a return to some sense of normal life by July 4, but undercut the administration’s upbeat message that the crisis is almost behind us and challenge Biden’s image as a capable pandemic fighter.
Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, in an interview said the Independence Day timeline is still within reach, but the country is at a pivotal point and the next few weeks are critical.
“If that ticking up [in cases] blunts itself and doesn’t come up in a real surge, then we should be okay,” he said.
But Biden’s message isn’t resonating, even with governors in some solidly blue states who were quick to embrace public health precautions for most of the crisis. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is lifting capacity limits on bars and gyms, citing increased vaccine supply. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is ending the mask mandate in two weeks, when the state will open up vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older. New Jersey is easing attendance limits on sports arenas and outdoor gatherings, even as it leads the nation in new infections per capita.
That’s on top of conservative-led states that rejected Biden’s message months before he was sworn-in and others that have since dialed back, saying restrictions infringed on personal freedoms.
Biden has largely tread lightly with governors, emphasizing the need to uphold public health measures without criticizing specific states and focusing mostly on vaccine distribution. On Monday, as his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director escalated warnings about virus spread, Biden said states should pause reopenings and reiterated calls for mask mandates.
Now, some experts say, it’s becoming clear his approach has not helped avert a surge.
“We have this continuing story of recklessness from governors who are opening too early … vaccine resistors, extremely worrisome variants that have behaviors that are unpredictable. These all represent a major threat to us,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University.
The situation appears worst in the Northeast, where colder weather is keeping people indoors, and in places like Michigan, where a more contagious strain of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom, known as B117, is especially prevalent. New research published Tuesday night found that the proportion of cases tied to B117 in the United States is increasing by 7.5 percent each day.
In the last week, the average number of new Covid cases is up 31 percent in Pennsylvania and 33 percent in Connecticut, according to the CDC. In Massachusetts, the number of new infections per week is up almost 30 percent since the end of February.
Cases have more than tripled in Michigan since the beginning of March, which can be attributed to a combination of spreading variants and economic reopenings, said Natasha Bagdasarian, a senior public health physician with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Unvaccinated young adults also appear to be driving a surge in Covid-related hospitalizations in the state.
“I’m really worried people are taking mitigation less seriously,” she said. “A lot of this has to do with venues opening up and people returning to activities that they have not been doing for several months.”
Like many states, Michigan’s outbreak is most pronounced outside major cities, focused in places where people tend to vacation or visit.
There are some notable outliers — the most prominent example is in Florida, where there have been outbreaks in Miami and Orlando tied to spring breakers. But there are also sharper increases in places like Massachusetts, where there are outbreaks around Cape Cod and Nantucket, and in Colorado, where it’s the ski towns that are posting the worst numbers.
“There is a sense of false security,” said Elizabeth Carlton, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. “If we loosen everything right now, we will see a rise in infection, and the variant isn’t making our job any easier.”
In New Jersey, state officials are blaming an explosion of cases around the shore on new variants. But they say they don’t know how bad the variant problem is because, like many other parts of the country, they don’t do enough sequencing to reliably track virus mutations. Gov. Phil Murphy has defended his decision to raise capacity limits outdoors, which is safer, and at large indoor arenas, where he said people could still easily maintain six feet of distance.
In Florida, which has found more cases of B117 than any other state, infection numbers have been steadily increasing over the past two weeks. That’s raised concerns that people who flocked to the state’s beaches for spring break could seed new outbreaks of the more contagious variant around the country.
“There is a very real possibility we could see more cases of the variant once those people return home,” said Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the epidemiology department at Florida International University.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday cautioned that the virus will keep mutating as it spreads — and more mutations could eventually undermine the effectiveness of the vaccines.
“Which is why we are really trying, as we are scaling up vaccinations, to decrease the amount of circulating virus,” she said.
The authorized vaccines appear to be effective against the B117 variant, but they may be less effective against a variant first identified in South Africa that has been reported in about 30 states. But that variant is far less prevalent here than the B117 variant, the CDC has found.
Appearing alongside Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who warned against a “false sense of security” as vaccinations ramp up, Walensky urged people to keep wearing masks, even in states where governors have refused or lifted mandates.
About 37 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine dose, including 73 percent of people 65 and older, according to CDC data. Biden this week promised that 90 percent of adults will be eligible for a shot within three weeks, though it will take more time for everyone to book an appointment.
Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said Biden’s team faces a tough messaging challenge that’s now being debated in public health circles. While some argue for more restraint until millions more are vaccinated, others say too much pessimism will dampen enthusiasm for the vaccines.
The Biden team, he said, needs to split the difference: Warn people who aren’t vaccinated they remain at risk, while promising they can soon get a shot.
“We have a short-term problem,” he said. “We should be incredibly optimistic about the summer.”
But after a tough March, the country is also likely facing a tough April, he warned.
Erin Banco and Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.