As the heavily mutated Omicron variant continues to tear across the United States faster than any previous strain of the coronavirus, President Biden outlined new measures Tuesday to attempt to minimize its toll by expanding government testing sites, distributing a half-billion free at-home tests and deploying more federal health resources to overburdened hospitals.
“We should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked,” Biden said in an afternoon address delivered from the White House.
Biden said that vaccinated Americans should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as planned.
“I know some Americans are wondering if you can safely celebrate the holiday with family and friends,” he continued. “The answer is, ‘Yes you can,’ if you and those you celebrate with are vaccinated.”
But the president also issued a stark warning to those who remain unvaccinated.
"If you're not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said. “You're at a high risk of getting sick, and if you get sick, you're likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital—or even dying.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 61 percent of the U.S. population is currently considered fully vaccinated — leaving nearly 40 percent of the country unvaccinated.
Biden urged vaccine holdouts to get inoculated, calling it their “patriotic duty” to do so.
“To all these people who aren't vaccinated, you have an obligation to yourselves, to your family and, quite frankly (I know I'll get criticized for this), to your country,” Biden said. “Get vaccinated now. It's free. It's convenient. I promise you, it saves lives. And I honest to God believe it's your patriotic duty.”
He also called on eligible Americans to get their booster shots.
“I got my booster shot as soon as they were available,” Biden said. “And just the other day, former President Donald Trump announced that he had gotten his booster shot. It may be one of the few things he and I agree on.”
Just 30 percent of fully vaccinated people have had a booster dose, according to CDC data.
Biden’s policy updates, as well as his increasingly urgent tone, come a mere three weeks after he announced his previous “winter plan” to battle Omicron in a similar speech at the National Institutes of Health — a reflection both of how speedily the variant has spread and of how its explosive growth has caught the U.S. off guard.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Omicron, which was first detected in the U.S. on Dec. 1, is already the country’s dominant variant, having rocketed from 12.6 percent of cases to 73.2 percent of cases in the span of a single week. It took the hypercontagious Delta variant about four months to achieve such dominance.
The same day, 298,761 new COVID-19 cases were reported nationwide — just shy of the country’s single-day record of 300,777 set last January.
Dense, interconnected cities are getting slammed first. In New York City, cases are up 277 percent over the last two weeks. In Honolulu, they’re up 828 percent. In Houston, they’re up 442 percent. In Miami, they’re up 219 percent. In Cleveland, they’re up 170 percent.
Yet experts predict that Omicron, which can dodge immunity better than any of its predecessors, will soon spread beyond major metropolitan areas to every corner of the country, potentially triggering more than 1 million U.S. cases per day — a previously unthinkable number.
The president said the country is in a much better place than it was in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit.
More than 200 million Americans have now been fully vaccinated, Biden said. In March 2020, there were none.
"What that means is today, a case of COVID-19 for a fully vaccinated and boosted person will most likely mean no symptoms — or mild ones similar to the common respiratory virus,” the president said.
As Omicron has taken hold, it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. is not going to counter it with mask mandates, restrictions or social distancing. Vaccinated Americans have little appetite — or reason, given that Omicron is unlikely to make them very sick — to revert to 2020-style lockdowns. Most unvaccinated Americans, meanwhile, have long opposed precautionary measures of any kind. Policymakers are following their lead, Biden included.
According to an internal Biden administration document providing updates on the pandemic, almost 92 percent of all counties in the United States have had “high or substantial community transmission” of COVID in the past seven days. The document, dated Dec. 21 and marked “For Official Use Only,” also says the Omicron variant has been detected in almost every U.S. state.
Biden’s speech Tuesday appeared to be an effort to strike a delicate balance between avoiding either unnecessary panic or dangerous indifference, in a country where the majority of residents are largely shielded from severe disease by vaccination or prior infection, but where tens of millions remain unvaccinated or otherwise vulnerable.
“I know you’re tired, and I know you’re frustrated, but we’re still in this,” he said.
The Biden administration is concerned that the more pervasive Omicron becomes, the more effectively it will find and infect Americans who still lack sufficient immunity.
Some will be hospitalized. Some will die. All of this will put further strain on a health care system that is already struggling to keep up with a huge, ongoing Delta wave.
Meanwhile, the White House is also trying to minimize Omicron’s effect on the even greater number of Americans who face a relatively small risk of serious illness themselves: the boosted most of all, but also the double-vaccinated and the previously infected.
Encouraging data out of South Africa, Denmark and elsewhere suggests that the vast majority of these people have little to fear, personally, from an Omicron infection. Yet their lives could be upended all the same. They may feel sick. They’ll have to miss work or school. And they should quarantine to avoid transmitting the virus to others who might be more susceptible.
Multiply those disruptions by hundreds of thousands or even a million new cases each day, and they start to have a serious impact on schools, hospitals, families and businesses, regardless of how mild each individual infection might be.
By increasing access to testing, both at government sites and through rapid at-home kits, the administration hopes to limit transmission to the vulnerable, while also limiting disruptions to lives of those who are largely immune to serious illness — as well as to school, work and the economy as a whole. The more easily and affordably Americans can get tested, the more they can remain in class or the workplace if exposed — and the more quickly they can return if infected and recovered.
At the same time, sending more federal resources to hospitals should help to minimize strain and staffing issues, if even a smaller proportion of a larger number of infections starts to overburden the system.
Yet the administration faces considerable challenges ahead. Many experts fear that Tuesday’s new measures will be too modest to have the necessary impact.
“500 million #covid19 tests sound like a lot,” Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner who now serves as a professor of public health at George Washington University, tweeted Tuesday. “But: 330 million Americans. If half want tests = 165 million. That’s only 3 tests TOTAL per person. Not nearly enough for testing to become the norm before school/work, and friends getting together. We need a plan for far more.”
“A start (finally),” added Eric Topol, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, “but billions are needed to help prevent spread.”
In a subsequent post on Substack, Topol outlined additional measures that Biden could have announced but did not, including booster shots at four months after the second dose, rather than at six months; redefining “fully vaccinated” as three shots of an mRNA vaccine, rather than two; restricting air travel to fully vaccinated passengers; distributing KN95 masks to all U.S. households; and rapidly scaling up the production of the anti-Covid pill Paxlovid, which quickly reduces viral load.
“All of these are eminently doable,” Topol concluded. “But our Administration continues to take a reactive stance, seemingly incapable of aggressive, bold initiatives that are under their control. Our house of Covid is not in order. We are contributing more Covid than any country to the rest of the world, and have been for months. We can indeed turn this around and show leadership. Show the world how to prevail over this pandemic. It’s never too late.”
— Jana Winter contributed reporting