White House overhauling COVID strategy as nation moves out of pandemic crisis

Biden aides convened privately online Wednesday with prominent pandemic experts.

February 24, 2022, 11:27 AM

Ahead of President Joe Biden’s planned State of the Union address on Tuesday, the White House has begun a sweeping overhaul of its COVID strategy that will signal the nation is moving past crisis mode and into a more manageable phase in the pandemic, ABC News has learned.

The new strategy was expected to acknowledge that the virus -- which has killed at least 936,162 Americans in the past two years -- is less of an urgent threat to most Americans because of widespread access to vaccines, booster shots, and testing, as well as increasing availability of therapeutics.

At the same time, the White House on Wednesday began working behind the scenes with some of the nation's most prominent pandemic experts to game out the various paths the virus could take to ensure the government is prepared.

In a private online meeting, Jeff Zients, the White House coordinator on the federal COVID response, led the group in discussing potential trajectories in the pandemic -- from the best case scenario that the virus evolves into a mild flu-like illness, to the worst case that an aggressive new variant could evade effectiveness of the vaccine.

The overall consensus was that COVID has fundamentally altered U.S. public health.

"There's no scenario where we say 'oh my gosh, let's go back to normal,'" said one person involved in the effort.

PHOTO: President Biden's Covid Response Team co-ordinator, Jeff Zients, in his West Wing office, in Washington, D.C., June 30, 2021.
President Biden's Covid Response Team co-ordinator, Jeff Zients, in his West Wing office, in Washington, D.C., June 30, 2021.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

The White House described Wednesday's online meeting as part of a series of outreach efforts with governors and business leaders to discuss the pandemic. Included in Wednesday's discussion were several former advisers to Biden during his transition after the election, but who had more recently called on the administration to shift gears and tackle COVID as part of the nation's "new normal."

Among those in attendance included Zients; David Kessler, Biden's chief scientific adviser; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethicist with the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Centers for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; Dr. Luciana Borio, a former senior official at the National Security Council and former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration now with the Council on Foreign Relations; and David Michaels, an epidemiologist and former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now with George Washington University's School of Public Health.

The meeting was confirmed by several people familiar with the effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on private White House meetings. Among the issues discussed were what resources the U.S. might need to ensure access to life-saving therapeutics and shoring up any vulnerabilities in the supply chain.

"We've seen things come down before only to be surprised," one person said, describing the meetings as helping the administration to prepare for next steps.

Timing of the White House announcement of its updated COVID strategy was unclear as the Ukraine crisis escalated Thursday with Russia's invasion. Biden had been expected to address aspects of the new COVID approach in his State of the Union address on March 1.

In a separate effort, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is preparing new guidance intended to help local officials decide when it's safe to pull back on restrictions, such as indoor masking mandates. Those updated recommendations, expected within the week, were expected to emphasize local hospital capacity and focus less on case counts when measuring a community's ability to withstand increased COVID transmission.

"We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer. Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes," Walensky told reporters last week.

The shift comes as Biden and Democratic governors are under increasing pressure by voters fed up with restrictions due to the virus. Several states have moved preemptively to lift restrictions, even as the CDC continues to recommend indoor masking, particularly in schools.

According to a recent Gallup poll, more Americans disapproved of Biden's handling of the virus -- 52% -- than those who approve. In recent weeks, Democratic strategists have advised party officials to shift their focus away from COVID and focus on curbing inflation instead.

Zients hinted at the upcoming shift in federal COVID strategy at a press briefing last week.

"We're moving toward a time when COVID isn't a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat," Zients told reporters on Feb. 16.

Biden officials say the administration is still keenly aware of the balancing act involved. COVID-related hospitalizations are now nearing the lowest level since before the omicron surge – a positive sign that the nation has turned a corner in the two-year pandemic.

At the same time, concerns of another variant remain, as well as the lack of a vaccine available to children ages 4 and under. Data on a Pfizer pediatric vaccine for the population isn't expected until April. Meanwhile, hospitalization rates for that age group are at its highest throughout the pandemic.

"We definitely are heading into a new phase of the pandemic," said Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who has previously advised Biden on COVID.

But, "I think we've fallen into the trap of thinking that it was over prematurely in the past, and it's just hurt us," she added.

ABC News Sony Salzman, Cheyenne Haslett, Sasha Pezenik and Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

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