Speaking on television last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted April would be “open season” for receiving the coronavirus vaccine, welcome news for a nation entering its second year under pandemic-forced lockdowns and ever-lingering fear of disease.
“Virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated,” Fauci said optimistically.
A week later, the timeline had moved back at least one month – possibly two – laying bare the risks for President Joe Biden and his administration in making precise promises amid a crisis that defies easy solutions or clean answers.
On key questions – such as when every American who wants a vaccine can get one, when all students can return to classrooms and when life can gain a semblance of normalcy – Biden has either demurred or offered only a partial projection, admitting he does not want to over-commit and later be held to blame. That stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who began predicting the end of the crisis practically as soon as it started.
“The American people can take the truth. They can handle anything,” Biden said as he toured a Pfizer plant in Michigan on Friday, hoping to demonstrate his administration’s focus on scaling up vaccine production efforts even as he acknowledged he can’t say for sure when every person can get one.
“I can’t give you a date when this crisis will end,” he said, “but I can tell you we’re doing everything possible to have that day come sooner rather than later.”
Biden's First 100 Days
Biden’s approach only seemed to be reinforced this week after disappointing – and to some officials, surprising – news from Johnson & Johnson. Fauci tempered his “open season” expectations after private conversations between federal health officials and employees at the drug manufacturer, which revealed it expected to have fewer doses of its vaccine available if it is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.
“That was predicated on J&J – the Johnson product – having considerably more doses than now we know they’re going to have,” Fauci said this week in explaining his initial April target, adding he now believes restrictions for who’s eligible for a vaccine will fall off in “mid-to-late May and early June.”
A person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, told CNN the more bullish public comments were a reflection of private, optimistic conversations between the administration and Johnson & Johnson. Because the company was more hopeful in recent weeks about what to expect in April, officials were, too – and their public statements reflected it.
But expectations for a massive surge of doses were dashed when Johnson & Johnson tempered its projections. The company is still wrestling with upping production at its facility in Baltimore, and the government now believes there will be fewer than 7 million doses of its vaccine available initially if it’s authorized, as expected, in coming weeks.
Johnson & Johnson has a contractual obligation to provide the federal government with 100 million doses by the end of June.
“We’re doing everything we can, working with the company, to accelerate their delivery schedule,” Biden’s coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said.
The episode with Johnson & Johnson proved instructive for some inside the White House, who remain eager to provide the public with good news on vaccine supplies and a trend toward normalcy but have grown wary of making promises they can’t keep.
At the Pfizer plant in Michigan on Friday, Biden highlighted his administration’s efforts to ramp up vaccine production and distribution, claiming his predecessor “failed to order enough vaccines, failed to mobilize the effort to administer the shots, failed to set up vaccine centers.”
The US has purchased 300 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, and it plans to deliver them earlier than initially expected. But even with big commitments and accelerated timelines, Biden is still cautious of naming a firm date by which every American who wants a shot can get one.
“I believe we’ll be approaching normalcy by the end of this year, and God willing this Christmas will be different than last, but I can’t make that commitment to you,” he said after viewing the deep freezers that help maintain the vaccine’s required temperature.
“There are other strains of the virus. We don’t know what could happen in terms of production rates, things can change,” he said, “but we’re doing everything the science has indicated we should do, and people are stepping up to get everything done that has to be done.”
What concrete goals Biden has set, including vaccinating 1 million Americans per day, have been exceedingly cautious, since the US was nearly meeting that goal when Biden took office.
And others – such as his vow to have enough vaccines available for nearly every American by the end of July – come with serious caveats. He has said even by that date many Americans will still need to wait given shortages in personnel and paraphernalia to administer the shots.
At least on schools, Biden has blamed communication errors for the muddled timeline, though even now it remains unclear when the administration believes all students – including those in high school – might be able to return to classrooms.
But elsewhere, Biden and his team are finding that even following the science and listening to experts – both things they made central to his campaign pitch – doesn’t make for clean or direct answers to the questions that Americans are desperate for nearly a year into the pandemic.
“There is no precise answer,” White House Covid-19 response senior adviser Andy Slavitt said during an event with The Washington Post on Thursday. “I don’t mean this in a political way, but I think we’ve lived for a year with a lot of overpromises, a lot of the solutions are around the corner, this is going away, etc., etc. And I think we are very sensitive and very reluctant to try to overpromise.”
Biden’s aides say he is being realistic amid an unpredictable and unprecedented health crisis, and does not want to raise Americans’ hopes when they could easily be dashed again by manufacturing snafus, reemerging variants or other unseen hiccups in returning the country to normal.
He’s also taken to heart the experience of the previous administration, which offered various deadlines for reopening and “flattening the curve” that came and went, often without scientific basis.
At the onset of the crisis, Trump offered the rosily-named “15 Days to Slow the Spread” in the hopes the outbreak would last only a matter of weeks. When it became clear that wasn’t happening, Trump extended the guidelines to 30 days, but still offered timelines with little to back them up.
He told Americans he wanted the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” – a timeline that administration health experts privately questioned. When that date came and went, officials – including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – pinned their hopes on summer.
“I think you’ll see by June that a lot of the country should be back to normal, and the hope is that by July the country’s really rocking again,” Kushner said last spring.
That, too, turned out to be wrong as cases began spiking and states maintained their lockdowns.
By October, as his reelection campaign was sputtering, Trump was saying the country was “rounding the curve,” even as cases began to skyrocket. Biden used the detached-from-science predictions to claim his rival wasn’t being straight with the American people.
“Be careful not to predict things that you don’t know for certain what’s going to happen because then you’ll be held accountable,” Biden said during CNN’s town hall on Tuesday, describing the advice he said he’d received from health experts such as Fauci.
He made the observation when answering a question about when the country would return to normal, which he targeted for Christmas – nearly a year away. That is further than an autumn target once offered by Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, though even Fauci acknowledged on Wednesday that predicting “normalcy” was a matter of guesswork.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to say that. We don’t know,” he said of Biden’s Christmas projection during an interview on CNN. “The President made an estimate, which I think is a quite reasonable estimate.”
A day after Biden’s town hall, however, the White House said even Biden’s Christmastime prediction shouldn’t be taken as an absolute commitment.
“We are not in a place where we can predict exactly when everybody will feel normal again,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
In some cases, Biden and his team’s caution in offering anything except the broadest projections on how and when his efforts to contain the pandemic will materialize have caused confusion.
The White House stance on reopening schools became muddled when Psaki, in explaining Biden’s pledge, said that could mean only 50% of schools open one day a week.
Later she said that was “not the ceiling” of the administration’s aspirations, and Biden said Tuesday the confusing White House position came down to “a mistake in the communication.”
But the White House has still found itself caught between the desire to reopen in order to allow parents to return to work and teachers unions advocating for members wary of returning to classrooms without stringent protections against the virus.
Even Biden’s attempts at clarifying did not offer a date by which he believed every American student could return to in-person learning. He said his goal was to have grades K-8 in classrooms five days a week within his first 100 days as president, but could not offer a similar goal for students in high school.
And in interviews later, the administration couldn’t explicitly say whether vaccinating teachers should be a prerequisite for reopening schools, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its guidelines was not the case.
“These are really hard things that there aren’t clear answers to,” said Jim Messina, who was a deputy chief of staff to President Barack Obama before managing his reelection campaign. “And you saw a President who is going to continue to be very honest with the country even if some people don’t want to hear it.”