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Is it the end of the beginning for COVID?

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“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” So said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in November 1942 after Allied forces defeated the Axis powers at El Ala­mein, dealing a decisive blow to their bid for control of North Africa. The battle was a turning point in World War II, but, as Churchill told his colleagues privately, the road to final victory “will still be long.”

President Biden could have quoted Churchill in his recent assessment of nation’s fight against COVID-19, which, with the ongoing spread of the Delta variant and the likelihood of further mutations, is far from over. Calling the current surge “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” a demonstrably frustrated president earlier this month unveiled a six-point plan designed to turn the tide and contain the virus before it wreaks further havoc on the health and livelihood of Americans.

Biden’s remarks reflected the unwanted reversal in the course of the pandemic since early July, when the president himself hailed signs of a return to normalcy. The proliferation of the Delta variant changed all that, triggering a new phase in COVID consistent with the peaks and valleys characteristic of earlier pandemics. The situation in the U.S. is dire: On the day this was written, some 163,164 new coronavirus cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than three times the number a year earlier; hospitals in parts of the country were overwhelmed with COVID patients; and 1,647 people died from the disease. The U.S. death toll for the pandemic as a whole stood at 652,480, approaching the number killed in the Civil War.

With the data moving in the wrong direction and 80 million people still not vaccinated, Biden was right, if perhaps tardy, in stepping in to reinvigorate the nation’s effort to vanquish COVID. After acknowledging that “we’re in a tough stretch, and it could last a while,” the president said, “The path ahead, even with the Delta variant, is not nearly as bad as last winter. But what makes it incredibly more frustrating is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans — supported by a distinct minority of elected officials — are keeping us from turning the corner. These pandemic politics, as I refer to, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die. We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”

The heart of the administration’s plan — which calls for providing further protection for people who have already been immunized; ensuring the safety of students and teachers while keeping schools open; increasing testing and requiring the use of masks; preserving the economic recovery; and improving care for COVID patients — is convincing holdouts to get vaccinated. Biden instructed the Labor Department to mandate that all companies with more than 100 employees require their entire workforce to be immunized, or tested on a weekly basis. In addition, the plan orders federal employees and contractors, as well as workers in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities, to get the vaccine.

“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for?” Biden said. “What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe and convenient. The vaccine has FDA approval. Over 200 million Americans have gotten at least one shot. We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”

While the basic elements of the administration’s plan are on target and should, in time, help contain the pandemic, one might question the tone of some of Biden’s remarks. It remains a mystery why so many people in this country have refused to take advantage of vaccines that all but eliminate the threat of COVID, but they are unlikely to be won over by a scolding from the president. The nation would have been better served if Biden had made a compelling case, as Churchill did during World War II, for unity and fostered a sense of shared sacrifice and common purpose.

Be that as it may, here’s hoping that implementation of the administration’s plan turns out to be a defining moment in the battle against COVID. With the health of Americans and the economy at stake, mass market retailers, CPG suppliers and other businesses should step up and support the drive to harness the power of vaccines to finally bring the pandemic to an end.


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