On the surface, President Joe Biden’s national address on the surging Omicron variant is about a plea and a plan — pushing people to protect themselves and outlining his efforts to expand testing, shore up hospitals and march ahead with an aggressive vaccination campaign.
He’s literally calling out the troops — 1000 military medical professionals to the viral barricades — as he urges Americans to straddle that line between caution and panic, and tells them, by the way, try to enjoy the holidays.
But even he must know he faces a near-impossible task, as he tries to glue back together some sense of unity in a Humpty Dumpty of a nation consumed by disease, division and distrust. The combination of a worn-out public, mixed messaging from health officials and stiff skepticism from large swathes of the country mean the president will struggle to break through.
And the Omicron surge couldn’t come at a worse time, both for Biden and the country. With the virus again ascendant, his domestic agenda in retreat and his approval numbers sagging, Biden needs to build confidence and project competence on the no. 1 issue of the day. Meanwhile, the new variant is striking just as millions of people head home for the holidays.
But restoring trust, and his own political sheen, is difficult when Biden is also the de facto voice of pandemic response at a time of plummeting trust in science and expertise, particularly (though not exclusively) among Republicans.
Much of America isn’t even listening to him. Poll after poll — or a quick spin through Twitter — has shown that in many conservative communities, the talk of the latest coronavirus variant is just more pandemic fear porn from a president they didn’t vote for and scientific advisers they disdain. That downplaying of the virus persists even though seven out of 10 Americans personally know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died — a finding from Pew last summer, even before Delta pushed the country’s death toll past 800,000.
And exhausted after nearly two years of pandemic with more hardship coming, people want certainty. But in the midst of a fast-moving and ever-changing pandemic of an ever-mutating virus, neither Biden nor Anthony Fauci nor any other fact-based health or science spokesperson can give them that — even if virus-skeptic, anti-vax podcasters and YouTubers and outside-the-mainstream doctors on right-wing TV promise otherwise.
Science is incremental. In the best case, understanding changes. And in this complicated global crisis, both under former President Donald Trump and Biden, everybody has gotten stuff wrong.
“Sure we’ve messed up parts of public health communication. Nobody’s been right all the time,” said Megan Ranney, an emergency physician in Rhode Island and a professor at Brown Medical School who is among the doctors who appear on television to try to explain the pandemic to the public.
Public health officials have to plan for the worst; it’s their job. But when the worst doesn’t happen, instead of thanking our collective lucky stars, too many people just decide that public health experts are fools or liars.
“For people who can understand that science evolves and changes over time, that’s one thing. For those who translate uncertainty into mistrust, it makes for a confusing and difficult environment,” said Mollyann Brodie, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation who oversees polling on the pandemic and vaccination.
While Biden is trying to talk to the whole country, he also has narrower targets.
Doug Evans, who runs a graduate program in public health communication at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, noted that even if Biden doesn’t break through to many Republicans, he’s also got to reassure those independents and Democrats “who are somewhat disillusioned with how things are going.”
Sure, Biden wants more people to get vaccinated. That’s essential, here and abroad, over the long run. Public health officials are particularly eager for parents who have themselves been vaccinated to become more confident about immunizing their kids and teens, who have become eligible more recently.
“Omicron is the variant of the day,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in an email. “ But it’s the next one and the next one we need to prepare for. Vaccination is the single best hope we have to live with an endemic virus.”
But given how hardened anti-vax attitudes are, Biden’s audience isn’t so much the unvaccinated adults. An awful lot of those who have refused the shot for this long are hard core and won’t budge. In fact, the latest survey showed only 12 percent of the unvaccinated said they might change their mind now. “If Delta didn’t move them, why do we think Omicron will?” said Brodie.
And the unpleasant reality is that even if people do soften on vaccination, they can’t even fit in two shots — plus a six-month booster — fast enough to thwart the sprinting variant. Some protection is better than none, but partial vaccination won’t maximize defenses.
That means Biden’s prime target may be people who are already vaccinated but haven’t gotten their boosters. That could add a big jolt of protection against severe disease even if someone gets a breakthrough Omicron infection. And the vaccinated — boosted or not — trend Democratic, so they are more likely to trust Biden.
Clarity around boosters is essential and overdue, given that the earlier White House muddled messaging on third shots was widely panned by public health experts as one of the administration’s worst moments. The White House seemed to get ahead of its science agencies, the FDA and the CDC, on boosters. Who should get what kind of booster and how fast was not explained well. People weren’t sure who needed one, when they could get one, or what kind they should get. A just-released Kaiser poll found one in four adults did not know that booster shots are recommended after six months, with confusion higher among Black and Hispanic people and people under age 30.
Biden did get one unexpected boost for boosters this week. Trump in an appearance with ex-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Sunday he said he’d gotten one. O’Reilly did too. Trump bashed vaccine mandates but still endorsed the shots, which were fast-tracked during his presidency. He got some boos.
Despite the divide, Biden needs to win over at least a sliver of trust from Trump voters, many of whom believe the virus was exaggerated to smash the economy and cost Trump re-election.
But there’s another worrisome trend: a widening partisan split over whether scientists can be trusted to act without bias and in the public interest — a gap that now amounts to 30 to 40 percentage points, according to Robert Blendon, an expert in public opinion on health politics and a professor emeritus at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That’s part of why Republican governors have leeway to ignore mainstream scientists’ recommendations on combatting the virus; it’s where their voters already are.
Polls by both Kaiser and others have found people trust their doctors, their employers and even their health insurers more than Biden or their state officials. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-Harvard School of Public health poll found higher trust in doctors and nurses than in federal authorities like the Department of Health and Human Services or the National Academy of Medicine, which is not a political body.
Polls have also looked at how much people trust media sources, and of course there’s a big difference in how Fox and CNN portray pandemic science. It’s harder to get a quantitative handle on who is relying on TikTok, Facebook, celebrities or influential podcasters like Joe Rogan as their primary sources of information. The White House has used celebrities too, of course, to promote pro-vaccination messaging, everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Pentatonix to singer Ciara and her little kids. GW’s Evans even suggested that Biden should draw celebrities trusted by conservatives into his messaging fold “like maybe country singers or sports starts who have a strong voice even on right wing media.”
But clearly we’re no longer in the days of Elvis, when a major celebrity could cut through the clutter and spur a successful vaccination drive.
And there’s no shortage of clutter.
With so much misinformation and disinformation — they are related, but not identical — pouring in from social media and other sources, lots of people have internalized at least some “certainties” about the virus that are in fact myths. A Kaiser survey in November found that 78 percent of adults had heard at least one of eight false statements about Covid, and one in three either believe or are unsure about half of the false statements.
Unvaccinated adults and Republicans, largely because of the news sources they trust, were more likely to believe the falsehoods, which ranged from the government exaggerating Covid deaths, to believing that the vaccine itself causes Covid. It’ll take more than a presidential speech for them to give up deeply held beliefs, however wrong, and do more to protect themselves and others from a virus that many don’t actually fear could even seriously harm them.
As one 32-year-old woman from North Carolina told the Kaiser survey about vaccination, “Jesus himself would have to come down from Heaven and speak with me personally.”
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