WASHINGTON >> No matter how encouraging Andy Slavitt's news is at the government's coronavirus briefings, he can always count on next-up Dr. Rochelle Walensky to deliver a downbeat.
After the tumultuous briefings of the Trump era, when top doctors would troop to the podium in the White House press room only to be upstaged by spurious pronouncements from Donald Trump himself, the thrice-weekly virtual sessions of 2021 have taken on a more restrained and predictable rhythm.
President Joe Biden stays away. The core players stick to their expertise. Data rules.
If the Trump briefings made for more stirring television, the Biden ones are designed to showcase the science-based side of the crisis, with a tone based more on facts than flourish.
The briefings generally open with Slavitt or Jeff Zients, the top White House official on the pandemic response, delivering an update on Biden's latest efforts to contain the virus, a can-do if rather monotone message about what steps the administration is taking to protect people and get them vaccinated.
Next up is Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She brings the numbers.
With blunt clarity, she runs through the latest statistics on new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the deadly disease that has coursed through the nation for more than a year, killing at least 550,000 in the U.S. Even when the trends are encouraging, she acts as a Greek chorus of one, warning people against letting down their guard.
Never was that more evident than Monday, when Walensky diverted from her script about a recent uptick in hospitalizations and deaths to confess that "right now I'm scared." Her voice thick with emotion, Walensky said she had a recurring feeling of "impending doom" even though she noted many reasons for hope.
She laid out her fears that the country was headed for a "fourth surge" of the virus if people aren't more careful, her words commanding headlines and overshadowing the president's own announcement later in the day about new efforts to expand vaccination programs.
Biden himself echoed her sentiments, adding that "if we let our guard down now, we could see a virus getting worse, not better."
Still, Walensky's stark warning surprised even some White House aides, who have made a point of giving the doctors broad latitude to address the public, consistent with Biden's pledge to let science guide the government response to the pandemic.
It's quite a contrast to the last administration, when a series of top government advisers were silenced or self-censored for fear of sparking the ire of Trump, who tried to play down the threat of the virus to the public, even as its toll became clear.
There's a political aim too, as the White House works to maintain its high approval ratings with the public for Biden's handling of the virus.
"I think we're getting past the partisanship through consistent, effective communication," Zients said recently. "Communication, transparency, progress are the key ways to get this done and to make sure that the American people understand the status of the pandemic and our response."
Following Walensky's situational update, then comes "next slide, please" Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The nation's top infectious disease expert, Fauci delivers a miniseminar, complete with charts and slides, citing the latest journal articles on rates of infection in different populations or the relative risks of various mutations or another pressing scientific question of the day.
Fauci's chalk talks make it clear the briefings are aimed at more than one audience. He toggles from advice for caregivers and jargon that only a physician could parse to more plain-spoken pronouncements for the general public.
A flavor of Fauci from Monday's briefing:
"If you look at the multi-system manifestations of COVID-19, they are multitudinous, the most important and common of which is the acute respiratory distress syndrome. But we know now there are neurological disorders, cardiac dysfunction, acute kidney injury, hypercoagulability. Bottom line: This is a very serious disease, which has already led to the death of about 550,000 people in the United States. Next slide."
Fauci and Walensky have autonomy as to what they're briefing on, according to a senior administration official, with the White House only having a sense of what they plan to discuss.
The briefings at times feature other guests who home in on specific topics, such as virus testing, supply chain challenges or efforts to make sure underserved communities get adequate attention.
And then comes question time, an opportunity for a limited number of unseen journalists to raise a virtual hand, generally without the friction that could crop up during Trump-era briefings.
The Biden administration sessions typically livestream on whitehouse .gov at midday and sometimes don't make the cut on cable TV. It's a far different dynamic from the days when Trump tried to time the briefings closer to the evening news and would boast about the ratings.
Trump relished claiming the role of "wartime president" but then used his platform to sometimes push unsubstantiated theories that drew ridicule and condemnation, such as his promotion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and his musing about ingesting toxic disinfectant to cure infection.
Biden's briefings are generally carried live by CNN and MSNBC, unless more pressing news breaks, and Fox will occasionally dip in with coverage.
Communications experts say they serve a vital role regardless of how many people watch.
Germany limits vaccine
Meanwhile, in Germany on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country will only administer AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to people ages 60 and above, following the advice of Germany's vaccine committee. The move follows reports of rare blood clots in the brains of 31 people following the first dose since the shots started being administered in the country.
The decision contravenes recommendations from the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization, both of which have said there does not seem to be a link between blood clots and the vaccine and both of which have said the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.
Germany's vaccines committee did not explain its decision and did not immediately say if the number of blood clots was out of proportion to the population vaccinated.
So far 2.7 million Germans have been vaccinated with a first dose of Astrazeneca's vaccine, according to the Ministry of Health. Complications have been reported in one out of 100,000 vaccinations with Astrazeneca's vaccine, according to the agency. It did not detail what those complications were and how serious they were.
France virus surge
In France, when President Emmanuel Macron holds his coronavirus strategy meeting this week, some of the figures at his disposal from overburdened hospitals will show why doctors are bracing for the possibility of unprecedented misery from rampaging infections.
Internal projections by the Paris public hospitals authority, some of which were seen by The Associated Press, suggest that intensive care units in the region of 12 million people may soon have to find space for more critically ill patients than ever. Nationwide, the number of ICU patients has already eclipsed the levels of France's last deadly surge in autumn.
Increasingly, hospital indicators suggest that this new surge risks becoming the worst one yet, raising the pressure on Macron to reverse course and lock down the country once again, as he did in October and November.
At Bichat Hospital, one of Paris' biggest, Dr. Aurelie Gouel's job of finding space for surgeries in its rabbit-warren of operating rooms is getting harder. Her phone rings constantly with requests for increasingly squeezed resources. Half of the ORs have been shut down this week to free up staff and space for COVID-19 care, Gouel said.
"The hospital isn't big enough to absorb the people who are sick," she said Tuesday. "We're under pressure to open extra beds but can't do that with health care workers who are exhausted."
Less-urgent procedures like hip replacements are being postponed.
"Even if the patient is in pain, and I understand that being in pain is a real problem, they will have to wait," Gouel said.