LISA DESJARDINS: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Lisa Desjardins.
As the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations ramps up, so is the rate of hospitalizations across the U.S. President Joe Biden is urging governors to enforce mask mandates as some states are refusing to comply with the CDC’s recommended public health regulations meant to keep people safe – this, as higher-risk variants are silently spreading across the country. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued an emotional warning to people to follow precautions just a little longer.
CDC DIRECTOR ROCHELLE WALENSKY: (From video.) I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared.
MS. DESJARDINS: Joining me tonight, four reporters covering this story: Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 Minutes+; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Anna Palmer, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter, and cohost of the Daily Punch Podcast; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR. Welcome to all of you.
Ayesha, let’s start with you. How is the Biden administration balancing this so far mostly successful vaccine rollout, but yet with a growing number of COVID-19 cases?
AYESHA RASCOE: In some ways it seems like the administration is a victim of its own success or the success of the vaccine rollout, however much credit, you know, people want to give them. But the problem is they want to have this message, and you heard it from President Biden again today, somewhat chastising people, saying he had said by July they think people could have small family gatherings, but it’s not July yet, it’s April, and people need to buckle down and, you know, just, you know, continue to wear a mask and to continue to move to do what they’ve been doing going forward, and not to go back to life as normal, that it’s too soon. The problem is, for a lot of the country people are already going back to normal. They’re not waiting until July. Things are opening up again. People are traveling. And that’s just a very hard message to get through to a nation that seems really weary of the restrictions that they’ve been living under for the past year.
MS. DESJARDINS: Anna, I think I can speak for all of us here in Washington and say in Washington there is definitely a hunt for vaccines. It is definitely high demand here for people messaging each other about where they can find it, how they can get it. Politically, though, first of all, what do we know about the message that members of Congress are taking to their districts? Are Democrats kind of touting success here? I don’t hear Republicans talking about failure. Where does this fit politically? Is everyone happy? Is that why we don’t see it in the headlines?
ANNA PALMER: I think it’s complicated. Like a lot of things, there’s this partisan lens where you see Democrats I think are wanting to tout the fact that there are more needles in the arms, that Joe Biden has been much more successful in terms of deployment of the vaccine, and that’s why there’s going to be better times to come ahead, but there’s still a lot of Republicans who are either deniers – some members of Congress who still haven’t even gotten their own vaccine, even though they’ve been, you know, able to get them for weeks if not months, and the fact that you have a lot of Republican governors who don’t want to take advice from Joe Biden or the CDC telling them that they need to have these mask mandates. So we still really have this partisan lens. You know, everybody on the Republican side is really looking to Donald Trump, who kind of raises his hand every once in a while but basically just wanting to take credit for the vaccine, but not actually doing anything else to, you know, try and get more people – particularly on the Republican side, where there is that vaccine hesitancy, where there does need to be more of an effort to try to get more Republicans across the states to actually get the vaccine.
MS. DESJARDINS: Yeah, Jonathan Martin, we know that Republican men is the largest single cohort that’s not getting vaccinated. When you talk to leaders and Republican men, what do they tell you about why they’re – why they’re hesitant?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah, well, I don’t think it was any accident that Mitch McConnell twice, at least that I saw last week, in Kentucky singled out just that group, Lisa, that you mentioned. You know, people who look like him, Republican men, are the ones who he encouraged to get vaccinated. I think it’s a huge challenge. I think we’re quickly moving from a supply challenge to a demand challenge, and I think we’re never going to reach herd immunity in this country when we have 30 percent of Americans who won’t get the vaccine. And I think the CDC is facing real PR challenges on this because they are so consumed with, you know, trying to encourage people to mask up, socially distance, not get too sort of rosy tinted yet, if you will, that they’re kind of I think in some ways underselling the benefits of the vaccine. You’ve got to tell people that, you know, this thing is going to be over, more or less, once they get vaccinated. You’ve got to give them a reason, an incentive to get the vaccination, and saying that you still have to wear a mask or you still can’t travel I think gets in the way of that messaging. That is the most urgent challenge, or it’s going to be here in the weeks to come, Lisa, getting people across the country – especially conservative skeptics – to take this vaccine. I think that’s going to be the real challenge going into May and June.
MS. DESJARDINS: Wes, what about another quieter challenge, the challenge of mental health, especially for health-care workers who are still on these front lines? I know you’ve been covering that. Where do things stand?
MR. LOWERY: Sure, you know, one thing that I think it’s easy to forget is that medical workers, nurses were already in a bit of a crisis, a staffing crisis, before the pandemic. That we had an understaffed medical system across the United States of America. And who those are – and for those who have been working in it, this year has been unlike anything else in terms of the horrors they’ve seen firsthand, the stress they’ve been put under. And so this is a problem that we’re going to be continuing to see play out for a long time, no matter how many people get vaccinated or do not.
But I – you know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with medical workers over the last month or so, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, right around the anniversary of the pandemic coming to the States. And one thing they’re very concerned about in this moment where you do see people starting to get vaccinated, and significant amounts of people getting vaccinated, is that life will start to go back to normal even before we’ve reached that herd immunity and that it might drive another wave of COVID cases and COVID deaths. That everyone kind of going back to normal because a bunch of us are vaccinated does not, in fact, keep safe those who have not been vaccinated.
And especially when we have additional versions of the virus that are out there, it’s really important that as we start, you know, going back to the bars and restaurants, seeing our loved ones in person, that that is going to set an example that other people – some of whom are not vaccinated – might begin doing that as well. And it might fill those emergency rooms and those hospitals up again. You have to remember our last big surge was right after the holidays when a lot of people broke some rules to go see their loved ones. And what the health-care workers I’ve talked to are very concerned about what the summer brings when people are back out and about, they feel as if things are safe because so many of us have been vaccinated, and how that could end up costing a lot of American lives.
MS. DESJARDINS: Ayesha, President Biden laid out some very specific goals, and then he’s kind of – he’s added to those goals. But how important for him are the COVID-19 goals? And is the White House concerned about this surge perhaps getting in the way and leading to what we’ve seen in other countries, which is another round of closures?
MS. RASCOE: Well, that would have to be a huge concern for this White House. But I do think that they are very pleased with the way things have gone thus far. President Biden’s poll numbers when it comes to handling the coronavirus are basically through the roof. They’re in the 70s percent approval rate when you look at across polls. So they have to be very pleased with the way things have gone. They have had this process of kind of under-promising and over-delivering, which is the opposite of what the Trump administration did. And so I think in that way they feel like they have – they have the trust of the American people right now when it comes to the coronavirus. Now if you do have another significant wave, that will be tested. And whether people will continue to have faith in the federal government to deal with this is a challenge.
MS. DESJARDINS: If I could just see all four of you for one last question, an easy one. Yes, no, I don’t know. Sitting here in this big empty Washington Week studio, where I’m very privileged to be, I’m curious. Just yes, no, I don’t know: Do you think all of us could perhaps be back in this studio – how certain are you that this calendar year that will happen? Nod, no, unclear? Nod, yeah, everybody feels yes. Exactly, good. All right, I was going to ask this summer. But, yeah, Ayesha, what were you going to say?
MS. RASCOE: Yeah, I think so. I mean, with people getting vaccinated. As you said, in this area people are – you know, like you said, all the DMs are going, where can you get it? I think if people get vaccinated I think we could be back in the studio, hopefully.
MS. DESJARDINS: I agree – well, it’s a date, it’s a date. Hope to see all of you here soon.
MR. MARTIN: Fingers crossed.
MS. DESJARDINS: Exactly, amen.
We’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to all of you – Wesley, Jonathan, Anna, and Ayesha – and thank you to our wonderful viewers for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Lisa Desjardins. Good night from Washington.