(CNN) — The long war against COVID-19, increasingly overwhelming in the bleak winter months, now raises a fundamental question about whether the United States has the political, economic and national will to prevail before the disaster worsens.
A race against time to vaccinate enough Americans before virus variants cause a new wave of illness and death becomes a critical stress test for a mass immunization effort off to a rocky start.
And there is a disconnect in Washington over the scale of the crisis, with Democrats demanding an economic rescue plan to “go big” and the few Republicans backing the action contemplating a much more modest approach.
It’s unclear whether vaccine and testing efforts, attempts to alleviate harrowing economic suffering, and the level of acceptance from the American people themselves are sufficient for the challenges ahead.
“We have to prepare for a long battle,” William Haseltine, a medical researcher and author, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday, warning of the potential for viral strains to prolong the pandemic.
“We can do it. We have to muster the popular will to do it. It cannot be done with leadership alone, each and every citizen has to do it, “he said.
In a ray of hope about the economic struggle, President Joe Biden spent two hours in the Oval Office with a group of Republican senators who have offered a counterproposal less than a third the size of their $ 1.9 bailout package. trillions. Congressional Democrats, much less concerned than Biden about a bipartisan approach, say the Republican approach is too small.
There were no signs of a breakthrough Monday, but in today’s bitter Washington, any meeting between Democrats and Republicans that doesn’t end in outright hostility is a step forward.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that “while there were areas of agreement, the president also reiterated his view that Congress must respond with courage and urgency. And he pointed out many areas that the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.
The Republican reaction was subdued but courteous, adding to the impression that while Biden may accept some Republican ideas, the prospect of a bipartisan vote for the final package remains remote.
“I wouldn’t say we got together in a package tonight,” Maine Senator Susan Collins said, but praised the president for his openness to what he said turned out to be an “excellent” meeting that lasted two hours.
However, the tone of the talks also offered some hope, at the very least, that Biden’s definition of unity – that political disagreements shouldn’t escalate into a flaming political war – will have some traction.
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Skeptical House Democrats
Capitol Democrats are, however, deeply skeptical of taking the time to consult Republicans who have a very different view of the size of the crisis, a reality that reduces Biden’s bargaining room.
Just before Biden called the meeting with the Republican senators, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York set in motion the procedural machinery that they could be used to push the oversized Democratic plan using a measure known as reconciliation to overcome the stagnant tactics of the Republicans.
And the White House spent the day leading up to the meeting stressing that the scale of the multiple crises afflicting the country means that scaled-down rescue plans will not work. That is a point also underscored by the growing sense that relative normality is still many months away. A pandemic that runs through the end of the year would force Biden to swiftly return to Congress for another bailout if a smaller package is agreed to now.
Biden’s plan would send another $ 1,400 to many Americans and extend unemployment benefits through September. It would spend tens of billions of dollars on testing and vaccination programs and to help reopen schools. It would also send hundreds of billions in aid to states and raise the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour.
The Republican offer is around US $ 600,000 million and includes similar amounts to combat the pandemic. It extends a slightly lower weekly unemployment benefit until the end of June. It also offers stimulus payments of $ 1,000, but targets them more narrowly.
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Can Biden strengthen America’s morale?
The fate of the country – and of Biden’s presidency – depends largely on his ability to prepare Americans for the next stage of the battle and on his ability to maintain national morale.
His White House has injected perceptible urgency into the fight, revisiting the previous president’s faltering vaccine launch that often ignored the worst internal crisis in decades. Americans are now inundated with reports and data from scientists, free to speak without fear of political repercussions. The most important priority will be to increase the vaccine effort, an operation that depends on the swift approval of a large covid-19 rescue from Congress.
But the president is leading a country battered by months of social distancing, family isolation and economic pain, as divided as since the Civil War by the tumultuous departure of Donald Trump.
As new coronavirus infections decline and eventually hospitalizations and death rates decline, governors are likely to face intense political pressure to restore a semblance of normal life.
Some restrictions on restaurant openings and other measures are already being relaxed in states like New York, Michigan and California. Most Republican voters, already doubting Biden’s legitimacy thanks to Trump’s lies about a stolen election, are unlikely to kindly accept any call from Biden for restraint.
And any relief from social distancing would provide exactly the conditions that new covid-19 variants – from South Africa, the UK and the US – need to seed another wave of even more virulent infections.
Vaccines offer a way out of the crisis. But with Biden saying last week that it will take until the end of the summer for the United States to reach a level of 300 million immunizations, the possibility of more months of misery is very real.
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Debate on the vaccination schedule
The government’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, offered Americans some hope Monday night after predicting the vaccination rate would rise rapidly.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Fauci told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” But he also pleaded with Americans to step up basic health precautions to prevent the virus variants from having a disastrous effect before the full launch of the vaccine.
Earlier in a briefing at the White House, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned that while new infections slowed by 14.5% in the last week of January, that painted a misleading picture of the potential pandemic in the coming weeks.
“While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions is encouraging, it is offset by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of deaths from covid-19 than in any month since the pandemic began, with more than 90,000 deaths recorded only in January, ”Walensky said.
“Variants remain a major concern,” said the CDC director, reporting on the discovery of mutant strains that experts fear will soon become dominant across the country, counting 471 cases of variants in the country as of Sunday. 33 jurisdictions.
The prospect of the variants being more infectious and slightly more deadly has sparked debate within and outside the government over whether vaccination protocols should change.
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States are currently seeking to ensure that immunized patients in high-risk categories receive the full two-dose schedule. However, some experts suggest that as many people as possible should receive a first dose to provide limited immunity in an attempt to slow the spread of viral variants.
Fauci told reporters that there are currently no plans to change the system. But Walensky left open the possibility that the adjustments suggested by science could be made in the future.
“Until we have more data, we plan to continue the trials and use science to say 21 days for two doses with Pfizer and 28 days for Moderna,” he said, referring to two vaccines currently licensed by regulators for emergency use.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism