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Biden Is Expected To Announce Steps To Help Counter The Delta Variant

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Biden administration's push to get America back to normal is suffering a setback. The delta variant is driving COVID cases up. And now even vaccinated people are being told to take precautions they thought they had put behind them. President Biden will make his first extended remarks on this today. And we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: What are you expecting the president to announce in this big speech about the pandemic?

KEITH: He's been begging people to get vaccinated for months. But one area where the president can do more than beg is the federal workforce. And there are about 2 million civilian employees. Biden is expected today to announce that these employees will need to either be vaccinated. Or they'll have to wear a mask at all times and get tested for COVID regularly. They are shying away from calling this a mandate. But this policy may have the effect of making being unvaccinated sort of a pain, which could push some people to just go ahead and get the jab. Another major topic will be this new mask guidance from the CDC.

MCCAMMON: Right. On Tuesday, the CDC said even people who are fully vaccinated need to wear masks indoors in public spaces in many areas of the country. What has the president said about that so far?

KEITH: So far, he's cast this as another step in the journey. He put out a statement right after the announcement came out. But today is the first time we're going to hear him talk about it. And frankly, this is a gut punch after a couple of months where it felt like COVID was in the rearview mirror. It turns out, like in "Jurassic Park" the movie, objects in the mirror were closer than they appeared.

MCCAMMON: Yikes. Wasn't it just earlier this month, just a few weeks ago, that he was celebrating America's independence from the virus?

KEITH: Yeah. It is remarkable how much has changed since President Biden celebrated the Fourth of July on the South Lawn of the White House with 1,000 mask-free guests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, we're closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.

KEITH: That's the line from Biden's speech that people remember. But even as he celebrated, there were signs of trouble. Not enough Americans were choosing to get vaccinated. And Biden foreshadowed the moment the U.S. is in now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Don't get me wrong, COVID-19 has not been vanquished. We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the delta variant. But the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.

KEITH: The delta variant is now the dominant strain. Daily new cases are more than quadruple what they were at the start of July. It was only 2 1/2 months ago that the CDC had taken a big step. It said that vaccinated people could go safely without masks. And Biden marked the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside. I think it's a great milestone, a great day.

KEITH: There were questions. How would you know people were vaccinated? Why would unvaccinated people keep wearing their masks? What would this mean for kids who couldn't get the vaccine? But the White House, which has repeatedly said they follow the science, deferred to the CDC. Biden went all-in on the new guidance, pitching it as another incentive to get vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: And for now, after a year of hard work and so much sacrifice, the rule is very simple. Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.

KEITH: That talking point is now toast. David Axelrod was a senior adviser to President Obama and is now director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

DAVID AXELROD: You know, we were building, building, building back to normalcy. And now this is a backslide. And it's very dispiriting and, I think, hard to tell people, actually, we're going backward, not forward, at least for now.

KEITH: When that guidance came out, Biden fully embraced the mask-free freedom, the handshakes and hugs. Now there's a sense of whiplash. And Axelrod says part of that is on the CDC.

AXELROD: Well, it's clear that the C in CDC does not stand for communications because they've done a pretty poor job of communicating during this period. I have no doubt that they are following the science. And the fact of the matter is that circumstances change.

KEITH: And Biden has tied his messaging around the pandemic to the CDC, an institution that has been tarnished by politics during the pandemic. It's had to adapt to an unpredictable virus. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health, says CDC's new guidance on masks is appropriate for this moment. And the public can be willing to accept shifting advice. But he says the May decision to tell vaccinated people they could ditch their masks was a mess and struck many as arbitrary.

SAAD OMER: They got a good grade, you know, probably an A in terms of biological science, when they came out with some of those recommendations. But they got an incomplete at best on behavioral science.

KEITH: When it comes to public opinion, Biden has gotten consistently high scores for his response to the pandemic. But COVID has proven time and again victories can be short-lived. It's not clear whether Biden will take a political hit for this current twist, a wave being driven by areas of the country with low vaccination rates. Cornell Belcher is a Democratic pollster.

CORNELL BELCHER: If you can connect that back to Biden and his action or inaction, I think it's problematic. But I don't think you can. I think it's hard to connect the dots around what's happening with the unvaccinated, particularly in the red states.

KEITH: The key for Biden is to make sure schools open in the fall and the economy continues to improve. Democratic consultant Karen Finney, who has experience with crisis communications, says the White House has to keep being transparent about what's happening with the pandemic as conditions change, while not letting that overtake the rest of Biden's agenda.

KAREN FINNEY: Keep moving on the things you can control. Keep moving on making sure that the campaign promises are met.

MCCAMMON: And we're back here now with NPR's Tamara Keith. Tam, how much of all of this is really in President Biden's control?

KEITH: Only so much. He was elected, at least in part, because people felt that he could fix this. And things are a lot better than they were six months ago. But as the midterm elections get closer, there's less time to recover from setbacks. So there are a lot of big questions. Does vaccination pick up? Are these vaccine mandates that we're hearing about the beginning of a trend? Are schools going to be able to open in the fall without incident? And does this wave of concern about the delta variant hurt small businesses, restaurants, concert venues, the economy?

MCCAMMON: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.