White House rejects return of COVID-19 shutdowns as Europe’s new lockdowns spark protests

The White House said Monday it has no plans to shut down the economy again as COVID-19 chaos seizes Europe, with lockdowns meant to thwart a fourth wave triggering violent protests.

A German official declared his countrymen will be “vaccinated, cured or dead.”

Austrians were told to stay home for 10 days, starting Monday, except to go to work or school, or to get groceries or exercise, prompting thousands to protest in the streets of Vienna. Similar protests against a partial COVID-19 lockdown broke out in the Netherlands, resulting in fires and clashes with police, and tens of thousands of Belgians took to the streets as politicians warned of a virus crackdown.

White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said the U.S. has no interest in joining the fracas.

“No, we are not headed in that direction. We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic — widely available vaccinations, booster shots, kid shots, therapeutics, including monoclonal antibodies to help those who contract the virus,” he said at a COVID-19 task force briefing. “We can curb the spread of the virus without having to in any way shut down our economy.”

Viral spikes in Europe tend to augur what’s in store for Americans. Outbreaks in Italy and Spain at the start of the pandemic preceded a crush of cases in New York City, and a variant known as alpha battered the United Kingdom before walloping the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Mr. Biden faces pushback over workplace vaccine mandates but he has avoided talk of 2020-style restrictions, preferring instead to promote vaccines and pre-purchases of millions of courses of COVID-19 treatment pills.

Any push to renew draconian business restrictions would be devastating for Mr. Biden and is “just dead — dead on arrival,” said Arthur Caplan, a director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

“Politically, he’s already in trouble on the economy. Restricting the economy would seal the fate of the congressional elections,” Mr. Caplan said.

“I think there’s no evidence you can control this stupid virus by locking people up. You get a little relief and then boom, we’re back again,” he added. “The toll of restrictions — mass restrictions — is just huge. It’s completely untenable if you have an option that is purely pharmaceutical.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently placed medical breakthroughs over restrictions as his state battles a Mountain West surge. He said he does not plan to issue a statewide mask mandate because cases are comparable to New Mexico, despite its mask rules, and “scientists simply don’t know why our region has a spike.”

“We wouldn’t be here talking about this if everybody was vaccinated,” Mr. Polis, a Democrat, said at a press conference this month. “If you are not vaccinated you are going to get COVID. Maybe this week, maybe this month, maybe next year.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who recently won reelection after fending off attacks over COVID-19 closures, spent his virus briefing Monday promoting boosters and a program that connects employers and workers looking to recover from the pandemic doldrums, rather than shut down again.

Besides vaccines and know-how, he said, “We’ve got other treatments, monoclonal antibodies, which we didn’t have. We’ve got the antivirals, and lot more tools in our toolbox, thank God.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser this week lifted a city mask mandate.

Erie County officials in Buffalo, New York, bucked the trend and said Monday they would reimpose a mask mandate on Tuesday. If cases don’t go down, the county will take a look at vaccine mandates in “phase two” before eyeing capacity restrictions or shutdowns in phases three and four if the first steps don’t work.

“My own view is that more restrictive measures would be brought into play only if there was a substantial rise in COVID-related hospitalizations that threatened the overall capacity of the health care system,” said Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Mr. Zients said decisions on how to manage the virus are frequently done at the local level because community transmission and vaccination rates differ, though he emphasized scientific interventions.

“We need to use the tools we have and get more people vaccinated, to keep people safe without going backward in any shape or form,” he said.

He rejected economic lockdowns as counterparts across the pond grapple with the fallout from restrictions that range from mandatory vaccinations in Austria starting Feb. 1 — the first such step in the West — to a “partial lockdown” requiring bars and restaurants in the Netherlands to close early. Protests in Rotterdam led to standoffs with police, who deployed tear gas and water cannons on protesters who had hurled fireworks at them.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the protests “pure violence” by “idiots,” and Belgian leader Alexander de Croo called a similar protest by 35,000 in Brussels “absolutely unacceptable,” according to Agence France-Presse.

In Germany, departing Chancellor Angela Merkel said infections are doubling every 12 days in a “highly dramatic situation,” prompting a dire warning from a top health official.

“Probably by the end of this winter, as is sometimes cynically said, pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, cured or dead,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

He promoted shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna as the Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce of vaccines, though he hasn’t ruled out another widespread lockdown as Ms. Merkel hinted that stronger measures will be needed.

About 67% of Germans are fully vaccinated but rates are far lower in eastern regions such as Saxony, where cultural sites, restaurants, bars and Christmas markets will be shut down for three weeks, according to Deutsche Welle media.

Some people see Europe’s viral surge as a direct warning for the U.S., where cases have climbed to more than 90,000 per day after a decrease to the low 70,000s in late October. Hospitalizations have ticked above 50,000.

It’s not as bad as Thanksgiving week last year, when the U.S. recorded 170,000 cases per day and averaged 90,000 hospitalizations ahead of a vaccine rollout that began in December. But the numbers are headed in the wrong direction.

“We’re experiencing the beginning of a winter wave, the consequences of too many unvaccinated and the need for boosters to halt infection,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Scientists say the current spike is driven by the fast-moving delta variant, which struck right as antibody responses from early vaccinations started to wane. Plus, the U.S., like Europe, might have relaxed mask guidance prematurely and opened the door for unvaccinated people to shed face coverings, too.

Analysts said they don’t expect European governments to be deterred from the strong-arm positions they are staking out, even amid protests.

“It’s not surprising Europe would potentially be headed down that path. Many of the countries are outright socialist nations where there is an inherent trust the government has the answer to all things and to all problems,” said Colin Reed, a GOP strategist and who worked as a spokesman for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.

In the U.S., however, “the fact Biden is pumping the brakes speaks to political peril that advocating such a policy might bring on,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s pretty clear Americans long ago grew tired of the forced mandates. I think the way out of this is through vaccines and getting people to make the decision on their own to get vaccinated.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said every country is different but the U.S. has the luxury of ample vaccines and Mr. Biden’s health team has not recommended shutdowns.

Officials advised people to avoid holiday gatherings last year, but the Biden administration told Americans it should be safe to enjoy Thanksgiving with fellow vaccinated people on Thursday.

The White House is pleading with roughly 47 million adults and 12 million teens who are eligible for shots yet remain unvaccinated, to come forward for the shots. They also called on vaccinated Americans to obtain an extra dose of one of three approved vaccines if they got their initial series at least six months ago.

Cyrus Shahpar, the COVID-19 data coordinator for the White House, tweeted that 461,000 people came forward to get vaccinated on Sunday and 890,000 came forward for a booster shot.

As it stands, 4 in 10 Americans are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 while 18% of the fully vaccinated — about 35 million people — have received a booster.

Whether it is enough to help the U.S. avoid a full-scale disaster and European-style standoffs in the streets will be seen in the coming weeks.

“People do have fatigue. I’ve been triple-vaxxed now and I’m tired of the restrictions,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. “I think we’ll get a true test as people will be gathering together for Thanksgiving and the holidays. If we get through that without a large outbreak, then we’ll be in good shape. I think it’s a function of whether people get vaccinated or not.”

Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.

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