Biden Is Rightsizing the COVID Crisis

The president continues to push for accommodating individual preferences rather than promoting collective solutions to the coronavirus.

Illustration of Joe Biden and fuzzy green dots
Jim Watson / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, is the faculty chair of the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters.

This past weekend, Anthony Fauci bailed on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser concluded that the indoor event, though open only to vaccinated attendees who tested negative for COVID-19 the same day, was too risky for his own taste. Biden himself split the difference and showed up only for the speeches, not for the meal. Asked to explain this turn of events, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “Every individual will make their own decisions about whether they attend this event, other events, whether they wear a mask at it or not.”

The underlying premise was that Fauci and Biden, like all other Americans, must reach their own conclusions about how to reduce their risk. Whether individuals party or don’t party is not a federal question.

The implicit policy, in short, is: You do you.

The coronavirus is here to stay, and Americans vary quite a lot in how much they care about that fact. Biden appears to understand this dynamic far better than his public-health team does. Despite his vows to “follow the science,” he was far ahead of federal regulators in pushing for booster shots last fall—to the point that two top FDA vaccine experts resigned. Some scientists wanted to wait for more data about the benefits of boosters; others argued the U.S. government should concentrate on winning over Americans who had not yet been persuaded to get their first shot. But Biden plunged ahead, having apparently concluded that the benefits of offering more protection to Americans who are deeply concerned about their own chance of contracting the virus or passing it along to others outweighed any downside.

That instinct has not entirely prevailed. The FDA’s needlessly long delays in approving vaccines for children younger than 5 suggest that regulators are misjudging many parents’ mood. Meanwhile, many public-health experts continue to fume over what looks to them—accurately—as the Biden administration’s growing emphasis on accommodating individual preferences rather than promoting collective solutions to the coronavirus.

Yet the reliance on society-wide solutions, including mask mandates, social-distancing rules, and school and business closures, began when options were limited, the consequences of coronavirus infection were severe, and treatments were unavailable. The White House’s implicit policy today reflects the rightsizing of the COVID-19 crisis. The arrival of the coronavirus triggered an unprecedented federal effort to contain its spread and mitigate its effects, economic and otherwise. Now the COVID response is starting to look normal—that is, more consistent with federal responses to past calamities—even if life has not returned to the pre-pandemic status quo.

In my field, we define a crisis as a consequential disruption—such as a hurricane, an earthquake, or an oil spill—that comes as a surprise and requires immediate steps to protect the general public. In most disasters, the United States follows a simple template: Local authorities are the first to arrive; the state coordinates how people and resources are used; the federal government supports those efforts as needed. This reflects our constitutional design. The Tenth Amendment gives the powers not expressly delegated to the federal government—powers that include public safety and public health—to the states, which then delegate many of those to localities. The virus upended this pattern as it swept across the nation, creating our first 50-state disaster.

The kinds of crises that require federal assistance, even if in just one state, also tend to reveal longer-term vulnerabilities, such as economic precarity, racial and ethnic prejudice, and unequal access to health care. Some emergency measures may be helpful in addressing these ills. In my own experience, though, the federal government has always scaled down its disaster response before the underlying conditions are cured. There is a difference between a crisis and a persistent policy problem. Some may argue that the abandonment of broad mask mandates is premature, but “not now” is a hard time frame to maintain as the risk of death wanes for anyone who chooses to be vaccinated.

To treat the crisis phase of the pandemic as complete is not the same as declaring that the country’s battle against COVID is over or that many Americans’ unmet needs are irrelevant. It is to say that many of the persistent systemic problems revealed by the coronavirus can be addressed, if our elected representatives choose, without requiring a declared emergency as a pretext for action.

As early as December, Biden seemed to acknowledge the reality that success would also mean ceding control of COVID policy, when he told governors: “Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at the state level.” Although federal agencies remain in control of vaccine policy, America’s constitutional design started to assert itself on other matters months ago; earlier this year, even Democratic governors began to outpace the White House on ending mandates as they took cues from their own populations. Local governments and school districts will still need to do better adjusting their pandemic-control rules as infection rates ratchet up and down. Private employers and educational institutions are still able to enforce vaccine and mask rules that meet their own needs.

I still wish that the Biden administration had tried to impose more vaccination mandates and that courts had ruled more consistently in their favor. Too many Americans remain vulnerable to COVID because of their age or health status; many still suffer from long COVID, about which scientists understand too little; not enough Americans are getting boosted. Federal officials can still focus their efforts on finding solutions to these problems.

Yet, without fear of sounding inhumane, Americans can also recognize some major successes: Schools and businesses have generally reopened. Congress approved an unprecedented amount of relief money. All adults have access to vaccines that make infections far less dangerous. Most Americans have received at least some COVID shots, despite a widespread campaign to politicize and discredit vaccination.

For a brief moment last week, Fauci acknowledged the improving situation when he told PBS’s Newshour that “we are certainly, right now, in this country, over with the pandemic phase.” Some of the reaction was furious. Coming from the expert who had led two administrations’ efforts to contain the coronavirus, the comment seemed too casual a way of marking such a major milestone. Within a day, acknowledging increasing infections, he had walked the statement back, clarifying it could “lead to some misinterpretation” and what he meant was that the “acute pandemic phase” was over. But nothing about Fauci’s initial statement was particularly confusing.

During the pandemic, a saying emerged: You may be done with the virus, but the virus isn’t done with you. This is a cute turn of phrase, but it sounds dated now. Because the coronavirus may never be done with you, whether you are done with it becomes mostly your call. Will you get a booster—or a second booster? When will you wear a mask? Should you attend a party? You know the risks. You do you.