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ANALYSIS: Is Biden’s CDC Extending The Pandemic?

(Photo by Amr Alfiky-Pool/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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President Joe Biden’s top medical advisers and appointees are taking an extremely cautious approach to the coronavirus pandemic, and in some ways they may be extending it.

The Biden administration has struggled at times to develop a coherent message throughout its time managing the COVID-19 crisis, and nowhere has that been more evident than at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency has repeatedly announced contradictory, confusing and surprisingly timid guidelines that may be having an adverse effect on public opinion.

The most recent example can be found with the pausing of administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. Biden’s CDC announced use of the vaccine would be suspended until more can be learned about a possible connection between the vaccine and blood clots. (RELATED: Trump Accuses Biden Administration Of Conspiring With Pfizer To Pause Johnson & Johnson Vaccine For ‘Political Reasons’)

The pause was triggered over the occurrence of six blood clots in roughly 7 million vaccine recipients. One new study found that to be far below the rate of blood clots in individuals who actually contract COVID-19. Still, out of an abundance of caution, the Biden team decided to suspend the use of the vaccine, as European regulators decided to suspend the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine over similar concerns.

That pause has seemingly had an affect on public opinion, and it isn’t a good one. An initial poll from Echelon Insights found that 58% of Americans are more confident in coronavirus vaccines overall after the pause, compared to only 23% who are less confident. However, according to an Economist/YouGov poll, more Americans now believe the Johnson & Johnson shot specifically is unsafe than those who believe its safe.

The drop in confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be connected, at least to some degree, to the decision to pause its use. Before the pause was put into place, confidence in the safety of the vaccine was 52%. Now it’s only 37%, compared to 39% of Americans who believe it isn’t safe.

While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine made up only a relatively small portion of U.S. vaccine supply, and confidence remains high in the offerings from Moderna and Pfizer, vaccine hesitancy remains a problem in getting the United States to herd immunity. Somewhere between one-third and one-quarter of Americans are unsure about, or flatly opposed to taking a coronavirus vaccine.

Scientists estimate that between 70-90% of Americans need to be immune to the virus to reach herd immunity. Any decrease in vaccine confidence will make that effort more difficult, and confidence clearly seems to have been harmed by the vaccine pause. Some have questioned whether or not it was worth it for a problem occurring in only about one in 1 million recipients.

Another question is whether or not the AstraZeneca vaccine should be approved. Regulators under Biden have thus far refused to approve it, at least in part due to the clotting issues associated with it. But even AstraZeneca’s shot is only causing that side effect in five to 10 people per 1 million who get the vaccine. Senior White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that AstraZeneca doses aren’t needed to get all Americans fully vaccinated, but it remains to be seen if that calculus will change due to the issues with Johnson & Johnson’s remedy.

Critics have also expressed concern that Fauci and others have encouraged more vaccine hesitancy by downplaying the effectiveness of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. Fauci has told Americans that his life has hardly changed after becoming fully vaccinated, and that they should continue to follow many of the same COVID-19 restrictions as before even after they have been fully vaccinated themselves. (RELATED: Trump’s Health Officials Downplayed The Virus. Now Biden’s Downplay The Vaccine)

The Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have all proven to be overwhelmingly effective. They offer nearly 100% protection against serious illness or death from the virus. Evidence suggests they drastically reduce transmission of the virus as well.

Despite that fact, the CDC has issued guidance telling Americans to keep wearing masks, not to travel, and to still avoid large gatherings even if they are protected against the virus by a vaccine. CDC director Rochelle Walensky essentially said travel was safe for vaccinated Americans, only to have the CDC come out after that comment and clarify that vaccinated Americans still shouldn’t travel after all.

When a sizeable chunk of Americans are still unsure about getting vaccinated, telling them that they will not be able to go back to living normal lives is unlikely to further encourage them to get a shot. It’s also not following the science that outlines just how effective the vaccines are.

Some officials, including Fauci, have also blasted Republican governors who have opened up their states and lifted some coronavirus-related restrictions. Despite the fact that Texas, for instance, has fared relatively well after lifting its mask mandate and business capacity limits, Biden called the decision “Neanderthal thinking” and Walensky said she felt a sense of “impending doom” in the coming weeks.

Polling data has shown that Americans are experiencing lockdown fatigue. Millions of people are ready to be back to work, have their kids back in school and to be able to go to events like concerts and basketball games again. Encouraging more lockdowns not only paints a pessimistic picture that could further dampen public attitudes, it also may influence state leaders, who have the real power over lockdowns, to keep them going.

They may end up following the lead of Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said California may open up by June, two months from now, if all goes well. The Biden administration doesn’t seem to disagree with this overly-cautious approach — when Michigan asked for more vaccine doses from the CDC to combat an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases, the CDC told them no. Instead, Walensky suggested the state lock down again.

Two surefire ways to extend the pandemic is to make people more skeptical of vaccines and to encourage leaders to keep lockdown measures in place. Members of Biden’s COVID-19 response team are taking opportunities to do both.