Last night’s CNN town hall with Joe Biden had a number of notable moments: the president predicting the pandemic could subside by Christmas, offering to personally help a woman secure a vaccine for her son, or brusquely replying that he was “tired of talking about Donald Trump” — to name a few.
But maybe the standout moment was Biden’s response to a mother attending with her eight-year-old daughter, who asked Biden when her children — who “often ask if they will catch COVID, and if they do, will they die” — would be vaccinated.
“First of all, kids don’t get … COVID very often, it’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden told the little girl. “Number two, you’re not likely to be able to be exposed to something and spread it to mommy and daddy, and it’s not likely mommy and daddy are able to spread it to you.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it baby,” Biden assured her.
It was a perfect television moment that neatly hit on many of the elements of the decidedly un-Trump-like Biden persona that’s been crafted over the last year.
“Perhaps the biggest contrast between Biden and the man he replaced in office is empathy,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cillizza, pointing to the exchange as one moment that “provided a stark reminder of just how radically different Trump was from any one who came before (or after) him in the office.”
“Biden’s response to the young girl and her mother was a near perfect encapsulation of how he straddled between his folksy Uncle Joe persona and a battle-scarred Beltway veteran,” wrote Deadline.
“It was a special moment,” said Democratic operative Scott Dworkin, echoing the sentiments of dozens of liberal Internet users, and even media critics and news anchors, touched by the president’s compassion and empathy.
The only problem is, Biden’s reply to the woman and her little girl also happens to be flagrantly untrue. There is now copious evidence that shows that, particularly when the pandemic is as out of control as it is in the United States, children are susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus — one of the reasons Biden’s push to quickly reopen schools has been so alarming.
According to a report published in the medical journal BMJ just eight days ago, public health experts are now warning policy makers to move with caution with school re-openings after seeing what’s happened in Israel and Italy with the new, more contagious UK variant of the virus.
In Israel — right now viewed as a pandemic success story thanks to its vaccination drive rapidly driving down cases — fifty thousand teens and younger children tested positive in January, more than any other previous month, and only one month after the British strain had shown up in the country. In the Italian village of Corzano, 10 percent of its 1,400-person population tested positive for the virus in early February, two-thirds of whom were infants or grade school–age kids, prompting one virologist to warn that “the much more contagious English variant calls for much greater precautions.”
This is the exact same variant that has been spreading like wildfire through the United States, and which the director of the Centers for Disease Control has warned could be the country’s dominant strain by March. It’s on top of a host of other new, US-originated strains that scientists fear could be similarly extra contagious.
Even before this, though, kids’ ability to contract and spread the virus was amply documented. A forty-thousand-person Icelandic study released in December found that while kids under fifteen were certainly less likely to be infected by or transmit the virus as adults, they were only half as likely, meaning that while schools might not have been drivers of the virus in better times, they will inevitably spread it around when cases are surging in the world outside. A more recent study put their infection and transmission rates at 43 and 63 percent of adult rates, respectively, while another recent study similarly found they could play a big role in transmitting it around when community spread was more rampant.
And while kids are still less likely than adults to get seriously ill or die from it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all, especially with doctors reporting cases of a deadly COVID-linked syndrome on the rise. The results are unspeakably tragic, and even if this is only a very small number of children, it’s a roll of the dice that many parents likely wouldn’t risk if they were aware of the full facts.
In other words, Biden’s assurance to the young girl and her mother last night is contradicted by the data on both counts: it’s not that unusual for kids to get COVID, particularly the new British variant that’s become dominant in the United States, and kids can indeed spread it to their parents, even if largely indirectly, by contributing to wider community spread. There are several things to say about this.
One is that this is entirely in keeping with the administration’s COVID strategy so far, which has not been particularly honest or faithful to science. Biden early on defied scientific consensus by firmly ruling out a national stay-at-home order for political reasons, spurring the policy’s sudden disappearance from public health discourse in the United States, while misleadingly telling the public they would only need to wear a mask for a hundred days and reappointing the discredited Anthony Fauci. Now, even some of his own advisors are publicly complaining he’s not leveling with the public about the severity of the crisis.
Second, if we believe Biden and his team of advisors are ignorant of all this research, this suggests he was intentionally playing down the virus to an audience of potentially millions. How can this be justified, given the quite reasonable outrage that greeted Trump’s taped admission that he had been doing the same thing? If anything, the widespread perception of Biden as honest and bound by the science makes this even more damaging.
Third, even if we grant the best-case scenario that Biden simply didn’t know what he was talking about, the media response here is a scandal. While Trump was quite rightly pilloried by journalists and fact-checkers on a daily basis for the drivel he vomited out about the pandemic, the press seems to be letting Biden off the hook for this. Biden misinforming viewers about the virus’s effect on kids, at a time when a new common strain is found to be more contagious among children and more kids are turning up sicker, has instead been used by the press to lavish praise on Biden while, again, talking about how bad Trump was. Meanwhile, the army of fact-checkers that diligently picked apart even the most minor Trump statements seem to have vanished or lost interest, with CNN’s usually hawkeyed Daniel Dale not commenting on last night’s proceedings except to defend Biden.
Fourth, CNN, even in its post-Trump lull, averages millions of viewers, leads in the age twenty-five to fifty-four demographic, and is highly trusted by its Democratic viewership, making it a far more influential source of information — or in this case, misinformation — than social media. Should the demands, some of which have come from CNN, for heavy-handed censorship of platforms and news outlets that dangerously mislead people apply to the cable network as well? Or is that only for independent outlets that rely on an open Internet to draw eyeballs?
Finally, all of this shows the folly of Biden’s push to defy the wishes of teachers and reopen schools within a hundred days, something his own administration is clearly having second thoughts about. Even though deaths and cases have fallen from their peak over the holidays, community spread is still extraordinarily high, and it took nearly two months to reach the death toll that has already nearly racked up under Biden in less than a month on the job. Meanwhile, a new more contagious variant that data shows is more contagious among kids and teenagers is quickly becoming the strain in the United States, leading experts to warn there could be another surge on the way.
The whole interaction only lasted two minutes, yet neatly embodied some of the most worrying trends of the emerging Biden era, whose administration looks like it’ll be dealing with a far more severe and protracted crisis than a lot of Americans first imagined. The political press has congratulated itself for its adversarial treatment of Trump. But it means little if this is the way they’re going to treat his successors.