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'Overwhelm the problem': Inside President Biden’s war on COVID-19

Top aides say the administration is using every 'tool the federal government has to battle on every front.'

WASHINGTON — The meetings begin each day not long after dawn. Dozens of aides report in, coffee in hand, joining by Zoom from agency headquarters, their homes or even adjacent offices.

The sessions start with the latest sobering statistics to focus the work: new coronavirus cases, people in hospitals, deaths. But they also include the latest signs of progress: COVID-19 tests administered, vaccine doses shipped, shots injected.

Where the last administration addressed the pandemic with the vernacular of a natural disaster — using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mantra of a “federally supported, state managed and locally executed” response — Biden’s team is borrowing from the Pentagon and the doctrine of overwhelming force.

“We’re at war with this virus,” COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said in an interview with The Associated Press between Sunday morning meetings on the response. “We’re taking every resource and tool the federal government has to battle on every front.”

It's a strategy facing urgent tests after Biden inherited an inconsistent vaccine distribution plan and with the emerging threats from new virus variants.

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The goal, Biden aides say, is as simple as it is ambitious: After a year of being on defense they want to take the fight to the virus — to “overwhelm the problem,” a kind of mantra for the team.

The campaign is being waged in schools and sterile pharmaceutical plants, on the vast blacktop of stadium parking lots and along the sidewalks outside Americans’ homes. To defeat the virus, Biden’s team must oversee a herculean logistical effort to put shots into hundreds of millions of arms, but also overcome vaccine hesitance, politically charged science skepticism and fatigue across all corners of society after nearly a year of hardship.

For Biden, beating back the pandemic is a defining challenge of his presidency, testing his central promise to the American people that he can better manage the outbreak than his predecessor. His team seemingly day by day rolls out an almost dizzying array of new efforts and appeals large and small — everything from building a surgical glove factory in the U.S. by year's end to asking Americans to wear masks while walking their dogs.

The central question for Biden and his team, one that can’t be answered yet: Will it all add up to enough?

“They’re taking exactly the right approach,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. “The federal government is taking responsibility, instead of leaving everything to state and local governments and blaming others when things go wrong.”

For all of the activity, though, Biden knows that there are more grim statistics to come before Americans can return to any semblance of the “before days." Some projections show the death toll could top that of the Civil War by the beginning of summer.

Since he took office, Biden’s team has attacked the problem on multiple fronts, unleashed billions of federal dollars to boost vaccinations and testing and developing a model to deploy active-duty troops to supplement National Guard members putting shots into arms. Mass vaccination sites are set to open in California, Texas and New York in coming weeks.

Credit: AP
In this Jan. 27, 2021, image from video, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president., Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the COVID-19 health equity task force, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Response Team,, appear on screen during a White House briefing on the Biden administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington. President Joe Biden’s team is styling itself on war footing as it attacks the coronavirus pandemic. Top aides say the administration is using every “tool the federal government has to battle on every front.” (White House via AP)

As concerns grow about potentially dangerous virus mutations, Biden aides view the vaccines less as a silver bullet and more as part of a series of moves that taken together offer the prospect of real progress.

“We’re not going to sugarcoat in any way how hard this is, but we’re going to demonstrate clear evidence of progress and action,” Zients said.

Biden is already well on pace to exceed his goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. It’s an assuredly achievable goal that some consider inadequate but also a break from the off-base predictions of the Trump administration that undercut public confidence.

Wen urged the Biden administration to set a more aggressive goal to increase the pace of vaccinations to 3 million per day. “I think they just need to be a lot more ambitious when they talk to the public," she said.

Beyond the focus on sheer numbers of shots delivered, there is question of whose arms.

New distributions to community health centers and a pharmacy program are being rolled out this week to allow the White House to directly steer vaccines to underserved communities.

The idea is not without critics. On a call with the White House on Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appealed to the administration to work through states rather than alternative distribution avenues.

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In one key instance, the more hands-on federal response has meant the Biden White House has taken a step back.

Where the Trump White House got involved in editing CDC guidance for businesses, travel and schools — prompting complaints about meddling — the Biden administration is leaving it to career scientists.

New, more prescriptive federal guidance on schools is expected as soon as Friday. While Biden in December promised “the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” his administration now says the goal covers just K-8 schools and will count success as being open just a single day per week.

That's drawing criticism from some Republicans who say Biden is setting the bar too low.

One early success of the Biden plan was born out of conversations with governors frustrated about constantly fluctuating vaccine supplies, which led some states to hold back first doses to ensure enough second shots would be available if deliveries dropped. Biden’s team pledged to give states three weeks notice on what's coming.

Biden’s national strategy for the pandemic provides the roadmap for the months ahead: more testing, clear guidance, and more and equitable vaccinations.

But the path to a “new normal” is still unclear. The Biden team is already working with pharmaceutical companies on “booster” shots for the variants and they’re building infrastructure to ramp up testing, since COVID-19 could be part of life for years to come.

Biden’s call for Americans to wear a mask for his first 100 days will undoubtedly be extended, aides say. Other goals are likely to be adjusted upward too.

"We’ll set the next set of goals as we make progress against the first set of goals," Zients said.

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Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.