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Biden administration prepares to pivot on pandemic approach

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

There's a dramatic shift coming to the way the Biden administration approaches COVID-19. Gone is the talk of stamping out the virus. Now it's getting to a place where COVID is no longer disrupting people's lives. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this look at preparations for the next phase of the pandemic.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Within days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new guidance for when people need to wear masks and when they can take them off. It will mark another milestone in a pandemic that has whiplashed Americans from dread to elation and back again.

PHIL MURPHY: Listen, people are fed up with this thing, and that includes yours truly. So let there be no doubt about that.

KEITH: New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is a Democrat who put in some of the strictest COVID rules in the country. He's usually on the same page as President Biden, but earlier this month he got out ahead of the White House and announced a plan to drop mask mandates in the state's schools.

MURPHY: The virus is clearly on the run.

KEITH: Murphy says, it's time to move into the next phase. Biden isn't talking much about masks these days, while the White House waits on new guidance from the CDC. But there's an intensive planning process underway, behind the scenes, as Biden's team prepares to explain what comes next. Dr. Leana Wen is at George Washington University.

LEANA WEN: We cannot be in a perpetual state of emergency, that the state of emergency has to end at some point.

KEITH: NPR spoke to numerous public health experts for this story who, like Wen, are in touch with the administration. They say officials are taking in ideas without revealing too much about their strategy. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, says the administration is thinking long term.

ASHISH JHA: No one thinks that the virus is going away. None of us think that we'll never have another surge or another variant. So what's the game plan so that we're not caught off guard?

KEITH: It's a message Murphy has been delivering to the White House, too.

MURPHY: Please, God, this thing doesn't take a wrong turn on us, right? So let's hope this is a theoretical conversation. But you want all the weapons in the quantities and at the speed that you need them.

KEITH: That means keeping the supply of COVID tests high, building the stockpile of antiviral pills and encouraging people to put their masks in storage rather than throwing them away. Helping the nation agree on the best way forward isn't going to be easy, says Josh Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins University.

JOSH SHARFSTEIN: We are so divided about the right approach. Almost anything the administration decides to do, some people are going to think that it's too strict, and some people are going to think it's too loose.

KEITH: Sharfstein says the White House and CDC need to be transparent about what principles are guiding their decisions. He says they have to explain that conditions might change. Scientific understanding might shift yet again.

SHARFSTEIN: You know, this isn't Public Health Communications 101. This is, you know, 501, 601. You know, course not normally offered.

KEITH: There have been other times in the pandemic when cases were falling, and even experts assumed that trend would keep going that way forever. But Dr. Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine is warning anyone who will listen, including his friends in the administration, that there must be a backup plan. And the public should know what it is in advance. He calls it anticipatory guidance.

PETER HOTEZ: And by doing that, you set that expectation. Nobody is profoundly disappointed when something happens.

KEITH: In a little more than a week, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address. It's one of the largest viewing audiences he's likely to have all year, and it's a chance for him to paint a picture of the new normal. The optimism of a year ago, that vaccines would banish the virus, has turned to pragmatism. It's not gone. It probably never will be. But the U.S. is getting closer to a place where it won't be the life-altering, economy-crashing menace it once was.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.