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White House hits troubling pandemic crossroads as rising cases threaten progress

April 3, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 22.3%. 2 min read.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill on March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)

When Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ditched her prepared remarks this week to voice a feeling of "impending doom" about rising Covid-19 cases, she flipped the script on weeks of hopeful news in the United States' fight against the pandemic.

While she and other Biden administration officials have for weeks urged Americans not to let their guard down, rising vaccination rates spurred a wave of optimism the long, national nightmare was reaching its end.

Fighting back tears, Walensky's dramatic warning during Monday's White House coronavirus briefing and her plea to "hold on a little while longer" marked an inflection point in the narrative of the pandemic, jolting the country to the reality that even the current pace of nearly three million shots per day may not be enough to prevent a final surge among the majority of Americans who are not yet vaccinated.

In either case, her words reflected an acute sense within the White House that the surge they had been preparing for was finally on the horizon -- a "sinking feeling," one senior administration official said, that things could get worse before they get better.

A host of unknowns still loom over the White House's pandemic response and the prospects of another surge, ranging from the rate of people unwilling to receive a vaccine to the vaccines' efficacy against future variants.

For weeks, officials have held out hope that by vaccinating the overwhelming majority of people over 65, they could prevent an uptick in cases from leading to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.

Beyond ramping up its public and private warnings to the public and state and local leaders, the administration's solution to the increase in cases has been to continue to scale up vaccination efforts, including by sending more doses directly to pharmacies and ensuring that more Americans are eligible to receive shots.

Speaking to US governors on a weekly conference call following Walensky's warning, administration officials reiterated their concerns about reopening too quickly, people familiar with the call said.

The administration has announced dozens of federal vaccination sites and Biden said last month that every adult American would be eligible to receive a shot no later than May 1.

A mix-up at a plant manufacturing Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, which the White House first learned about last week, led to internal consternation about progress toward Biden's goal of delivering most Americans their shots by the summer.

Administration officials stressed the quality issue with Emergent Biosolutions, a Baltimore manufacturing plant making Covid-19 vaccine materials for Johnson & Johnson and others, wouldn't affect Biden's ultimate goal of making vaccines available to all Americans by May. And the White House said the company told them to still expect 24 million doses of their vaccine for next month -- though officials cautioned that rests on Johnson & Johnson, given questions about their production timelines.

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