After assuming office Jan. 20, President Joe Biden has made several changes to the federal COVID-19 response, some of which have affected Arlington.
It has been almost a year since former President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency. Biden released his national COVID-19 response plan Jan. 21 outlining his administration’s goals, including improving vaccination equity and accessibility, improved mitigation techniques, plans to safely reopen schools and businesses and restoring U.S. leadership globally. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. has reported about 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, almost 600 of which were in Arlington.
Daniel Sledge, political science associate professor, said the Trump administration did not have a broadly disseminated strategy for combating COVID-19, while the Biden administration has a clearly defined plan. The previous administration’s Operation Warp Speed was successful in developing COVID-19 vaccines, but it faltered in regard to testing, disease surveillance and vaccine distribution, he said.
“That’s been a big focus of the Biden administration,” Sledge said. “Making sure that we actually have some sort of coordinated approach to getting people vaccinated.”
On March 2, Biden said his administration is on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by May.
Lt. Richard Fegan, Arlington Fire Department public information officer, said one change he has seen at the local level is engagement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency starting in early February. He said the assistance from FEMA complements the existing local vaccination efforts and is not expected to be a sustained operation. During their deployment in Arlington, FEMA workers will assist in distributing vaccinations, he said.
To help ensure a level of equity in vaccination efforts, officials specifically select members of underserved communities to get vaccinated at the FEMA site, Fegan said.
He said the most substantial difference he has seen since January is the increase in vaccine availability due to increased production from manufacturers. Because of this, Arlington is currently on track to administer 21,000 Pfizer first-dose vaccines per week and received 6,000 of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines last week.
Fegan said he has not felt shorthanded in regard to vaccine delivery. He said the initial vaccine rollout by the Trump administration faced inherent limitations.
“Over time, we started getting more because there [was] more,” Fegan said.
The Arlington Fire Department has distributed almost 80,000 vaccine doses since December, said Susan Schrock, city of Arlington communications coordinator, in an email.
Euless resident Omar Rutland said better communication and a transparent plan were the most significant differences between the administrations. The Biden administration has done a better job of including minorities in vaccination efforts, he said.
“I think that with the Biden administration that more minorities are going to feel more comfortable getting the vaccination,” he said.
Arlington resident Kristin Bodkin said the biggest difference in this administration’s COVID-19 response has been Biden taking the disease seriously. As a health care worker, Bodkin saw how the Trump administration minimized the disease’s severity and did not prepare hospitals properly, she said.
The change in COVID-19 rhetoric from the White House has led to more people in Texas taking the disease seriously, she said.
“I think the messaging now is far more clear and concise than it was,” Bodkin said.
Sledge said public health literature shows messaging matters and seeing leaders model good behavior can impact the way individuals act.
“The sort of signals that are sent by the administration in terms of social distancing and mask-wearing are valuable to the health of the American people as a whole,” he said.
Sledge said despite declining COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, now is not the time for individuals to let their guards down. State and local governments have more control over most of the public health interventions available to combat the spread of COVID-19. He said there is danger in states reducing public health measures in the face of political pressure, which may prolong the crisis.
“I think the last thing that any of us want to see is this last any longer than it should,” he said.