WASHINGTON — Just hours after Minnesota public health officials confirmed the nation’s second case of the Omicron variant, President Biden unveiled a “winter plan” intended to combat the new coronavirus strain in the coming months.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., after meeting with his top pandemic advisers.
Shortly after he finished speaking, a new case of the Omicron variant was detected in Colorado, a potent reminder that keeping up with the pathogen’s relentless pace continues to be a challenge.
The president’s so-called winter plan builds on existing initiatives as opposed to introducing new ones. It includes new guidance for schools that will reduce the number of students who have to quarantine if there is a positive test in a classroom; family vaccination clinics where shots for both adults and children will be available; a campaign to encourage booster dose uptake among already vaccinated adults, seniors in particular; reimbursement from private insurers for over-the-counter purchase of rapid at-home tests; stricter testing requirements for international travelers entering the United States; and an extension of mask mandates on public transportation in the U.S. until mid-March.
The plan also calls for sending “strike teams” to emerging hot spots; stocking up on pills that can treat severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; and more quickly delivering vaccine doses to foreign nations — while also helping them “turn vaccines into vaccinations” so that delivered doses do not go unused.
Some criticized the plan as necessary but insufficient. “Most aggressive pandemic plan yet for the US, but still falls short of all that’s needed now,” tweeted Dr. Eric Topol, founding director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
The plan does not include free or subsidized rapid tests, instead requiring a potentially cumbersome reimbursement process. Nor is there the forceful restatement of masking mandates that some hoped to see. Vaccination is “encouraged,” but encouragement has thus far not worked to convince the reluctant. Millions more will have to get vaccinated before community spread of the coronavirus can be halted.
“We build on our steps,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing ahead of the president’s speech, describing the plan as “implementable,” as opposed, presumably, to a series of more ambitious proposals that would likely face opposition from Republican governors.
“We have taken a number of steps that are not intended to be controversial or divisive but still may be perceived that way,” Psaki added, an allusion to opposition to public health measures like mask mandates in schools and vaccination requirements. Some of that opposition is being spearheaded by Republicans, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are expected to challenge Biden for the presidency in 2024, should he run again.
Striking a somewhat more hopeful tone in his own remarks, Biden described the winter plan as one “all Americans can hopefully rally around.” It has been a public health mantra of his administration that success is predicated on “meeting people where they are,” and the measures introduced on Thursday are a concession to the stark reality of where the nation stands as Omicron arrives and cold weather looms.
The latest on the Omicron variant
That reality has as much to do with politics as it does with science. As cases rose throughout the fall — driven by the Delta variant, which has been here since June — Biden’s approval ratings entered a protracted tailspin, one that could imperil his party’s prospects in the 2022 midterms. At the same time, Republican opposition to both mask and vaccine mandates has hardened, which likely explains why the new plan has no new compulsory measures, outside those for foreign travelers.
In his remarks at NIH, Biden expressed the hope that his winter plan would “unite us” at a critical moment in the fight against the coronavirus. “I know COVID-19 has been very divisive in this country. It’s become a political issue, which is a sad, sad commentary,” he went on to say.
“It shouldn't be.”
The divisions are real, however, and they are largely political. Only some 59 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, with sluggish first-dose uptake among adults throughout November. The differential between vaccinations is especially stark when it comes to political ideology, meaning that Biden’s appeal is largely directed at his most determined opponents.
And only 20 percent of the fully vaccinated have received their booster shots, though boosters will almost certainly provide a measure of protection from Omicron. Here too a political divide has opened up, with polls showing that Democrats are twice as likely to seek out booster shots than are Republicans.
Biden’s vaccine mandates for health care workers and employees of private companies are both tied up in legal challenges, while a group of Republicans in the U.S. Senate is threatening to shut down the federal government over the private employer mandates.
“This plan does not expand or add to those mandates,” Biden said.
Near the end of his remarks, the president said that despite the setback a new variant potentially presents, his administration was working from a “position of strength.” Indeed, 200 million people have been vaccinated and two new powerful therapeutics will soon be available. At the same time, Omicron presents an unpredictable new factor, particularly as winter approaches.
Public health experts have warned that disparities in vaccination rates between developed and developing nations would lead to the advent of new variants, which would inevitably make their way to the United States, thus prolonging the pandemic for everyone. Omicron was first identified in South Africa.
Biden vowed to accelerate the deployment of vaccines to the rest of the world, though here too, there were no drastic changes to extant policy.
“America is doing our part,” he said. “And we will do more.”