WASHINGTON — Just as President Joe Biden's pandemic response was hitting its stride, a major stumbling block appeared.
After enjoying a trail of improving data points during his first months in office, cases of Covid-19 are on the rise again, one of three vaccines has been temporarily hobbled, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Biden ally in the throes of one of the country’s worst outbreaks, is publicly questioning the administration's vaccination strategy.
This week is the first rough patch Biden has faced after relative easy going since he took office in January, a period defined by falling cases of Covid-19, rising vaccinations and favorable comparisons to the haphazard management of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
In a move that could ultimately delay some of his vaccine goals, on Tuesday the Biden administration recommended a pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to investigate a handful of extremely rare but serious incidents of blood clots.
Separately, some experts are warning a fourth wave of the virus could be on the way as Americans let down their guard, leading to calls, so far unanswered, for the administration increase shipments of vaccine doses to emerging hotspots, including politically inconvenient states like Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Whitmer, whose effort to curb the virus in her state last year helped make her a finalist to be his running mate last year, added to pleas that the administration redirect vaccines from states where cases are low to hotspots like her own. It's a request the administration denied, as it had weeks earlier when the virus flared in New York and New Jersey.
“I think the Biden White House has largely been functioning well and smartly,” said Jeff Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who broke with the GOP over Trump and co-founded a group that supported Biden. “But it doesn't seem to me to make sense for them to let a fire rage out of control in one state or region in service of some theoretical fairness on paper so things line up on some spreadsheet. That seems to be like an untenable position.”
“I would hope that Whitmer holds their feet to the fire,” Timer added. “Triage makes sense. When you have a fire, if there are out-of-control portions, that's where you dump the water.”
Facing one of the worst outbreaks in the country right now, Whitmer is urging the administration to give her state more vaccine doses as she calls for voluntary restrictions, but stops short of a full lockdown.
The request sounds straightforward enough, but it would upend the core principle behind Biden’s plan, which is to allocate doses to states based simply on the size of their population. Giving more doses to Michigan would require taking them from another state's allocation.
“I think they've got a plan and they're committed to sticking to it, and I understand that,” Whitmer said in a Sunday interview on CBS. “But I'm also going to continue fighting for my state.”
The White House appears reluctant to rescue its political ally. Instead, federal health officials have pushed her to institute another lockdown, saying restrictions are the only way to stop an ongoing outbreak because vaccinations take weeks to become fully effective.
“When you have an acute situation, extraordinary number of cases like we have in Michigan, the answer is not necessarily to give vaccine,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky. “The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer and to shut things down, to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another, to test.”
The Biden administration has given Michigan other resources, like more drugs to treat people already infected with Covid-19 and additional federal personnel. But it has stood by its vaccine distribution strategy, which was put in place after Trump was accused of playing favorites in his allocation of the precious drugs.
“We don’t pick by our friends. We don’t pick through a political prism. We pick through what is most effective to be fair and equitable around the country,” White House Press Secretary Jen Paski said of the population-based plan. “We’re not in a place, nor will we be, where we take supply from one state to give it to another.”
The strategy is beginning to divide experts who have mostly hailed the administration’s moves in combatting the pandemic so far. Some states are not yet using their entire allocations, especially in places where the population may be more resistant.
“There are over 55 million doses distributed, unused and some can be added to (Michigan’s) allocation as their current supply gets depleted,” said Dr. Eric Topol, the Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “I don’t understand why it hasn’t been done.”
The standoff puts Whitmer — who is up for re-election next year — in a bind after she faced some of the nation’s most vocal and violent backlashes to her lockdown order last year. Trump said he wouldn’t help “the woman in Michigan.”
The GOP-controlled state legislature stripped the governor of some emergency powers used to implement stay-at-home orders. That means Whitmer can't unilaterally impose all of the strict measures the CDC is telling her to utilize to stop the virus spread.
“Given her slippage in (her polling) numbers, I don't think that she's going to go that way again, unless it really becomes necessary,” Bernie Porn, the president of the Lansing-based polling firm EPIC-MRA said of another lockdown. “People are getting antsy.”
Despite surging cases and hospitalizations, Porn said most Michiganders believe the pandemic is waning because there hasn’t been a sharp rise in deaths.
“Those who are most likely to get very very sick or die are not getting the virus because they've already been vaccinated,” Porn said. “Because people think it's getting better, they think Whitmer needs to open things up a little more.”
The clamor for more vaccines in places like Michigan is also coming at time where there may be less.
The administration decided to pause the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a move that could stoke fears about the vaccine, experts warn.
Vaccine hesitancy is already slowing rollout of the inoculation in some rural parts Michigan.
“We’re struggling (to fill appointments) right now,” Steve Hall, the health officer for the six-county Central Michigan Health Department told the news site Bridge Michigan.
And while the administration says it has enough supply of two other vaccines to make up for the loss, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored and transported more easily than the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna, so it was expected to be the workhorse of efforts to vaccinate rural and other hard-to-reach communities.
“There is enough vaccine, that is basically 100 percent unquestionable, for every single, solitary American,” Biden said at a Tuesday meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus.