Biden Injects a Dose of Confusion Into the COVID Debate

The president has yet to clarify what victory over the pandemic looks like

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 09: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about combatting the coronavirus pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House on September 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. As the Delta variant continues to spread around the United States, Biden outlined his administration's six point plan, including a requirement that all federal workers be vaccinated against Covid-19. Biden is also instructing the Department of Labor to draft a rule mandating that all businesses with 100 or more employees require their workers to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
September 10, 2021

President Joe Biden began his coronavirus speech on Thursday by pledging to clear up confusion about the persistent coronavirus pandemic. Count it another promise broken.

"This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said, before lambasting the unvaccinated for putting the vaccinated at risk. He went on: The vaccinated may need boosters, but they are extremely well-protected against hospitalization and death. And the vaccines work, but masking is more important than ever, so much so that the Transportation Security Administration will double its fine on travelers who refuse to wear them.

While Biden made a token effort to persuade the unvaccinated to get their shots, it turns out they won’t have much choice in the matter. Biden announced an ambitious—and quite possibly unconstitutional—plan to mandate vaccination for all businesses with over 100 employees.

The speech reaffirmed what’s been obvious since July, when the Delta variant sent cases soaring. The Biden team has no clear conception of what victory against COVID looks like, and thus no coherent program for ending the pandemic. It’s a variation on a theme for this White House: In Afghanistan, we got defeat and Biden called it victory.

The administration has been unable to make up its mind about three things: first, how effective vaccines are; second, how worrisome breakthrough cases are; and finally, which officials should make those determinations.

The third question is especially important because there is only so much consensus about the first two. In his speech, Biden repeatedly invoked "the science," but scientists disagree about how rapidly immunity wanes and just how protected vaccinated adults over 60 are. More to the point, they disagree about how much risk society should be willing to bear, which is a matter of politics rather than science.

Top officials at the Centers for Disease Control illustrate the uncertainty among scientists. CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in April that fully vaccinated people "do not carry the virus." By July, she was arguing that they spread it just as easily as the unvaccinated.

Public health officials can be forgiven for updating their views as new data come in. But the fluidity of the situation makes defining clear goals all the more important, and the failure to do so all the more inexcusable.

Biden could have announced that the incidence of severe disease, rather than the number of individual cases, is the only metric that matters in a post-vaccine world. He did not. He could have said that our case counts constitute a national emergency that warrants immediate booster shots, taking a page out of Israel’s playbook. Instead, he said decisions about boosters would be left to the CDC and Food and Drug Administration, two separate federal agencies that have clashed with each other, as well as with the White House, over the course of the pandemic.

Credit where it’s due: The president’s unbridled contempt for the unvaccinated meant there was a consistent thread in the speech. Some frustration is understandable, and we encourage those who can to take the shot. But Biden took no responsibility for his own administration’s role in fueling vaccine hesitancy.

Beyond the back and forth about breakthrough infections, the administration made a monumental error in April when it suspended the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over fears of blood clots. The clots were extraordinarily rare—fewer than one per million shots—but the pause sent the message that they were common, undermining trust not just in Johnson & Johnson but also Pfizer and Moderna. Vaccine uptake plummeted in the wake of the pause and has not recovered since.

Now, Biden tells us to obey the same bureaucrats who needlessly nuked confidence in the vaccine. Little wonder some Americans don’t trust the science.