As states throughout the country continue to struggle with the fallout of a deadly polar vortex, senior Biden health officials are concerned that the days-long emergency will also lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks to come.
Over the past several days senior administration officials have scrambled to assemble a federal response to the winter emergency, primarily in Texas, but also in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other northwest and southern states. As part of that response, the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have coordinated sending 60 generators, meals, blankets, water, diesel and other life saving supplies to Texas. President Joe Biden has approved emergency declarations in several states, and he’s personally spoken with dozens of local and state officials in Texas to see what more can be done to help those in need.
Beyond assessing and addressing the obvious risks that come with no power, water, or access to reliable health care, administration officials are working to understand the full magnitude of COVID-19 issues caused by the storm, including vaccination sites shutting down in more than six states and the delay in shipment of nearly 6 million vaccine doses. Officials say their biggest fear is that increased transmission among people gathering indoors together to find warmth will create a spike in new cases at a time when vaccination is slowing in the state due to weather conditions. The state was set to drastically expand vaccination before the storm hit by setting up a mass vaccination site in coordination with Pentagon and FEMA officials. Personnel assigned to help set up the site were delayed in reporting to Texas because of the snow.
“Look at the patterns of disease hospitalizations and deaths. They were really dramatically going in the right direction. I just hope that we’re going to bounce back and I think we will,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, in an interview Friday. “This is a setback. We need to continue to do whatever it is that we can—doing the same things we’ve done that we know work. I know, it’s tough to do that. When you’re not in your home, because the pipes have blasted out, you and your family are freezing and you might have to go to the shelter. It’s obvious that that’s not an optimal way to prevent the spread of disease. But hopefully that’ll get rectified quickly.”
Officials are also concerned that the situation on the ground, mainly the lack of water and power at hospitals, particularly in rural communities, will lead to the deaths of those who were already seeking care for the virus. One senior Biden official said there is no reliable way to track COVID-19 cases and deaths in real time but that they expect the Texas state health department to report both COVID-19-related deaths and other fatalities caused by the storm in the coming weeks.
“It can take weeks, sometimes months for these deaths to reach the federal government database,” one senior Biden official said. “But we’re probably going to see a slew of hypothermia and carbon monoxide deaths as well as deaths related to COVID. The question will be if those COVID deaths occurred because of a lack of power or for reasons that are explainable.”
Concerns about transmission come at a time when the Biden administration is working overtime to control the spread of COVID-19, in part by ramping up vaccination. More than 73 million doses have been shipped and about 58 million have been administered. And the Biden administration has recently inked more deals to ensure doses continue to flow at a quicker pace in the coming months. But the emergence of new, more deadly variants has complicated that effort, though there is some evidence that vaccines will still offer protection against them. It’s forced health officials to double down on calls for Americans to more stringently adhere to public health guidelines—the same ones officials have been urging for more than a year—as a way to reduce transmission.
“The continued spread of variants that are more transmissible could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month … if we let our guard down,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a Wednesday press conference. “We’re not at the place where we believe that the current level of vaccination is what is driving down the current level of disease. We believe that much of the surge of disease happened related to the holidays, related to travel. We’re coming down from that. I would articulate really loudly that if you’re relying on our current level of vaccination rather than the other mitigation efforts to get us to remain low … we shouldn’t rest in that comfort.”
The winter storm emergency has senior Biden administration officials concerned that they will again face an uphill battle trying to control the spread of the virus right when they were beginning to make progress.They are trying to avoid a situation where states will have to force residents back indoors, reducing restaurant and gym capacity.
Fauci said the U.S. “by no means” has the pandemic under control—that community transmission numbers are too high across the country to begin to roll back public health measures.
“If you get such a high level of background infections, like we had a month ago, when we were getting 300,000 new infections per day, then it becomes almost impossible to do efficient identification, isolation and contact tracing,” Fauci said. “Once you get the baseline of infections really low, once you get more and more people vaccinated, then you can start to pull back gradually from some of the stringent public health measures. And by pulling back gradually, I mean restaurants starting to open, increasing the capacity with which they open ... outdoor sports and having spectators watching it. We need to gradually do that as opposed to saying, ‘okay, the numbers are down. Let’s just turn everything on again.’”
Fauci said that is precisely what happened during the Trump administration last summer—the country reopened before transmission was under control.
“There's a dynamic of outbreaks, that when they accelerate on the way up, they have a self propagating momentum of more cases and more cases,” he said. “When you get the momentum going in the opposite direction, the same thing occurs, the less and less people that get infected.”
Still, even if the U.S. gets transmission under control, there is always the chance that new variants emerge that will pose an even bigger threat, Fauci said.
“The thing that I’m concerned about is that even if we achieve a level of very, very significant suppression of the baseline level of virus in the United States, and the virus is still raging in the rest of the world, typically, the developing world that doesn’t have the capability or the resources to vaccinate, there will always be that lingering threat of new variants coming in, and essentially sidestepping the protection of the vaccines,” Fauci said. “It is a global pandemic. And the only way to fight it is globally because otherwise it’s just gonna keep being an overhanging Sword of Damocles over us.”