In its first year, the Biden administration has faced its share of criticism over its COVID-19 response, much of it centering around confusing communications. Recent polls show that it is beginning to wear on the public: The percentage of Americans that approve of President Biden’s pandemic response now trails the percentage that disapprove of it.
Perhaps in response, the administration rolled out a new program this week designed to boost access to home COVID-19 tests and N95 masks. Some public health experts hope it will be the first step in the administration’s efforts to right its pandemic ship.
“I think it’s a fair criticism that, for too long, the president’s COVID task force put too many eggs in the vaccine basket and neglected other possible responses,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That includes home testing, masks and the mass production of therapeutics as they’ve been developed.”
Galston pointed to an inevitable ceiling the country will hit in its vaccination campaign, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the federal mandate for private businesses. A revamped focus on expanding access to testing and on the superiority of high-quality masks vis-a-vis cloth ones, then, represents a promising pivot.
“It’s a real step forward that the president and his chief advisors are now putting much more stress, including public stress, on those relatively neglected dimensions of the fight,” Galston said.
But that’s only one of many potential steps. Fixing the broader messaging problem isn’t an easy fix, according to Terry Haines, founder of healthcare policy consultancy Pangaea Policy.
“For months, the White House let the dominant public and press narrative of Biden’s COVID performance harden into one of confusion and competing messages,” he said. “Biden and his staff think they’ve got a fixable messaging problem, but they’re fooling themselves. They’re afraid to regularly and constantly communicate with the public about what’s next and why.”
On Wednesday, Biden discussed his pandemic response during his first solo press conference of 2022. He characterized the U.S. vaccination push as a success (with about 75% of adults vaccinated) and defended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own messaging in the face of criticism.
Biden argued that the CDC was doing the best it could, given frequent changes in our overall COVID knowledge. “The messages, to the extent they’ve been confusing — it’s because the scientists, they’re learning more,” he said.
But Galston echoed Haines’ concerns, stressing that the administration needs to fix its messaging in tandem with the testing and masking pushes.
“There have been surprises on the pandemic front and there have been changing facts on the ground,” he conceded. “But at some point, if you try to respond to changing facts on the ground with a series of new guidelines, the public is not going to be able to keep up with the new guidelines. That diminishes people’s willingness to trust and follow any particular guidance.”
As the U.S. moves toward a post-vaccination policy, Galston hopes to see the administration improve in four areas: communication, home testing, PCR testing and therapeutics. On the communication front, he suggested that the administration identify a single spokesperson and charge her or him with coordinating all of its expert voices. He also suggested empowering that person to field questions about any/all decisions and policies relating to the pandemic.
“The perception of confused, ambiguous and even contradictory messages needs to be overcome quickly,” he said.