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Biden’s return-to-normal Covid strategy faces a new test as funding stalls

His administration is bracing for a new wave of U.S. Covid infections in the coming weeks without key funding or essential tools in its arsenal.
President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on March 14, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on March 14.Oliver Contreras / Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden pushes for Americans to return to their prepandemic lifestyles, his administration is bracing for a new wave of U.S. Covid infections in the coming weeks, without key funding or essential tools in its arsenal.

Much of the administration’s plan for the next phase of the pandemic — when Americans can return to work and everyday activities without masks, in most cases — was based on the assumption that Congress would be giving it billions for treatments, vaccines and testing. But that money appears to be in jeopardy after Congress dropped $15.6 billion in Covid response money from the massive government funding package signed this week. 

White House officials say they have no backup plan for how to keep a number of efforts running without the funds and have already begun making cuts. Meanwhile, a new variant called BA.2, which appears even more contagious than omicron, is starting to spread throughout the U.S. and has already led to an uptick in hospitalizations in Europe.

“We are somewhere between denial and delusional thinking,” said Eric Topol, executive vice president at Scripps Research. “We should be gearing up, we should not be gutting funding now, we need more funding this is going to hit us hard.”

The federal government has already begun to cut back on purchases of Covid treatments, curtailing shipments of monoclonal antibodies to the states by 30 percent next week, and said a program to provide treatments and testing to the uninsured would run out next month. 

For example, a new and highly effective treatment from Pfizer is still in limited supply and a "test to treat" program to allow people to get tested at a pharmacy and then receive the medication is still being set up. 

“We need the money. There are immediate near-term consequences, some of which we’re having to act on this week, next week and the first week of April,” said a senior administration official. “So time is not on our side. We need the funding immediately.”

On the vaccine front, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the vaccine for children under 5 years old, a move officials once anticipated by the end of February. There is also growing evidence that older adults will need a fourth dose of the vaccine, four months after their last booster, to keep up high levels of antibody production, a proposal the Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing. But even if a fourth dose is cleared, the administration says it doesn’t have enough money to buy more booster doses for every American.

This week the virus hit particularly close to the White House, where staffers no longer wear masks. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive on Tuesday, and at a gala Wednesday night Biden briefly interacted with the Irish prime minister shortly before the prime minister was pulled from the event when his Covid test came back positive. 

Beyond the West Wing, there are indications the U.S. is starting to see an uptick in cases. The number of new infections reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been declining, but a rise in at-home Covid tests could be skewing that data. A third of wastewater monitoring sites have shown a rise in Covid cases from March 1 to March 10. The U.S. hasn’t seen a rise in hospitalizations, though in the past those numbers have been a lagging indicator. 

Even as the president has encouraged people to return to work and their normal activities, and the CDC has advised that most Americans can go maskless, administration officials acknowledge that the country could be heading for another rise in cases.

“Just because Covid isn’t disrupting some of our lives in certain communities as much as it was a few weeks ago, it doesn’t mean it’s gone,” said press secretary Jen Psaki. “It's not gone. And I think this variant is an example of that.”

There are indications that another wave might not be as lethal as what the country saw over the summer because so many people were infected in that wave. But the administration isn’t expected to make any significant changes in its policies.

“The change now, at least unless hospitals fill up significantly, is that it’s going to be much more of a mode where if you want to protect yourself, protect yourself. You have the tools to do that, you have masks, you can take a test,” said Andy Slavitt, who helped coordinate the administration’s pandemic response in Biden’s first year.

Republicans skeptical of new Covid funding

White House officials have had dozens of calls with members of Congress trying to push through the funding, but Biden has yet to directly engage in the efforts. In signing the funding bill that was originally supposed to include the money, Biden made no mention of the missing funds, and he hasn’t held any meeting with lawmakers to specifically push them for the money. 

After initially agreeing on a $15.6 billion infusion for virus relief, Congress stripped the money in the 11th hour last week, facing Republican opposition and defections from a narrow group of Democrats, who opposed paying for it by redirecting some existing funds. Some Democratic lawmakers say party leaders didn’t run that partial pay-for by them.

“I would just say that had we had a conversation about it. I think it would have been very clear that this was probably not a strategy that would work, and that we would need to find other options,” said Rep. Pramila Japayal, D-Wash.

As a result, lawmakers are stranded with no clear path ahead for additional Covid money. With the loss of the best vehicle to advance it, the effort will now require a compromise that can win over House Democrats as well as at least 10 Senate Republicans in order to pass.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was “very disappointed” by the decision to cut the funds, saying the $15.6 billion compromise was already insufficient.

“I think we need all the money we can get to have the resources that we need to fight Covid. The last thing we need is another variant,” Pelosi said. “You want to stop transmission. Transmission creates variants. Variants are different and they present — if they are different, different challenges. So this is nothing to mess with.”

She said Congress should find a way to approve that funding, while conceding that lawmakers “will have to offset it” and avoid adding to the debt.

GOP senators are cool to the idea. Caucus leaders say they first want an accounting of how existing Covid funds have been spent. And they prefer to repurpose money that has already been authorized but not yet spent — a deal-breaker for some Democratic lawmakers whose states have made plans for spending that money.

“My view — and I think this is probably the view of most of our members — is that we had a chance to get that last week and the House progressive wing blew it up. They torpedoed it,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters. “Unless it’s paid for and it’s something that 10 Republicans will vote for, it’s hard to see how it passes the Senate,” he added. “I think what our members are going to say is to repurpose existing funds.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., an appropriator and a member of party leadership, said, “There are questions that my colleagues have about where all the Covid funding went.

“The administration should be absolutely straightforward: Here’s what we spent the money on, here are the categories where there’s still money left. Whether it’s been distributed or not, it’s been committed for these purposes,” Blount said. “And then how to make a legitimate case for whatever they think they need.”

Democrats also face political calculations. They control the White House and Congress, having won the 2020 election by running on defeating the virus. The Covid situation has improved since the omicron wave, but some worry that if another variant strikes this year Democrats will suffer the blame for its consequences, even if Republicans were the ones who blocked the response money.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has called for a standalone Covid relief bill, saying the federal government has “completely exhausted” public health money in the American Rescue Plan and “must pass additional Covid funding” to therapeutics, testing and vaccines.

“Experience has taught us that new variants can come back with a vengeance if — if — we aren’t ready,” he said.

CORRECTION (March 20, 2022, 10 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a former pandemic response coordinator in the Biden administration. He is Andy Slavitt, not Slavit.