President Biden took a victory lap over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis Tuesday, characterizing it as a manageable disease even as House Republicans push him to move faster in unwinding emergency powers and leftover vaccine rules.
“Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives,” Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union address.
Mr. Biden took office vowing to corral the coronavirus but it took far longer than he expected. Deadly delta and omicron waves scrambled his plans, prompting him to float a series of vaccine rules even as the variants cast doubt on the vaccines’ ability to thwart transmission from person to person. Some of the mandates were struck down by the courts.
Now, with much of the country enjoying some immunity to the coronavirus, Mr. Biden is stressing voluntary uptake of vaccines and treatments as a way to put COVID-19 on par with other diseases.
Fast-moving variants threatened another debilitating winter wave at the start of the year but those fears have subsided. Hospitalizations for the virus never exceeded 50,000 compared to well over 100,000 during winter peaks in the previous two years.
“While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people and the ingenuity of medicine, we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” Mr. Biden said. “We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”
The World Health Organization says the pandemic is at a transition point this year and Mr. Biden famously declared the pandemic to be “over” in a 60 Minutes interview last fall, though his administration is proceeding cautiously in unwinding COVID-19 rules and procedures.
The president is not canceling its emergency pandemic powers until May, saying states and the medical system need a long off-ramp.
Also, the administration is fighting in court to preserve its power to impose mask requirements on airline passengers even though it has largely moved on from pursuing actual mandates.
The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, is crafting a plan in which annual COVID-19 boosters are matched to circulating variants.
“We still need to monitor dozens of variants and support new vaccines and treatments. So Congress needs to fund these efforts and keep America safe,” Mr. Biden said in the speech.
Mr. Biden also pledged to double down on “prosecuting criminals who stole relief money meant to keep workers and small businesses afloat during the pandemic,” as Congress tries to uncover the extent of fraud and whether taxpayer money will be recovered. The line received a standing ovation from members of both parties, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.
House Republicans are nudging Mr. Biden to move on from the pandemic era faster. The House recently passed bills to end the virus emergency immediately and eliminate a federal requirement that requires foreign arrivals to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
Another GOP bill would scrap the vaccine mandate on health care workers at places that receive money from Medicare or Medicaid.
The bills will likely die in the Senate, rendering them political messaging tools for House Republicans.
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