The official in charge of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team expressed optimism Friday about the future of the pandemic, saying the nation is “moving toward a time when COVID won’t disrupt our daily lives, where COVID won’t be a constant crisis but something we protect against and treat.”
The official, Jeff Zients, made the remark at a White House news conference as the national coronavirus caseload was on a slight downward trajectory, largely because of declines in major cities in the hard-hit Northeast. That trend also prompted Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to sound an upbeat note.
“We are starting to see steep declines in areas that were first peaking, so areas of the Northeast — New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut — are really starting to come down,” Walensky said at the same briefing, calling it “an optimistic trend.”
Still, the coronavirus caseload in the United States, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, remains far higher than at any prior point in the pandemic. The daily average of cases exceeds 700,000.
More than 150,000 people in the United States are hospitalized with COVID-19 and at least 2,000 are dying each day, according to a New York Times database. While hospitalizations are beginning to plateau in some parts of the country, health care systems are overwhelmed and in crisis in others.
There is, of course, no way to know for certain what will happen next. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser for the coronavirus, laid out best- and worst-case scenarios for the coming months.
The best case, he said, is that infections will continue to decline to a point of “adequate control.” If so, he said, the virus would no longer disrupt everyday activities, and a combination of vaccine-induced immunity and natural immunity from prior infections would protect communities against high rates of severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths, and prevent health care systems from getting overloaded.
The worst case, he said, is “another surprise variant” that evades the vaccines. Fauci said he could not say how likely it was that such a variant would arise, “but we have to be prepared for it.”
The officials spoke at a White House briefing a day after Biden marked his first year in office with a news conference at which he was asked tough questions about his administration’s pandemic response. The White House has been thrown off guard by two coronavirus variants. First came delta, which drove a devastating wave through the summer and early fall, and now omicron has driven new cases to record highs.
Zients’ comments about the virus crisis easing were calibrated to deflect criticism and to showcase what the White House regards as its achievements: the implementation of a successful vaccine distribution system and federal authorization of tests and treatments that did not exist before he took office.
But even as Zients gave his encouraging forecast, he conceded, “We’re not there yet.”