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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden urged vaccinated Americans to get their Covid booster shots and once again pleaded with those who have yet to be vaccinated to get their first dose in remarks Monday amid growing concerns about the potential threat posed by the new omicron variant.
"The best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there, the ones we've been dealing with already, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot," Biden said. "Most Americans are fully vaccinated, but not yet boosted."
Biden said he didn't believe there would be a need for lockdowns like the ones seen last year, but that people should still wear a mask in crowded indoor areas. He also said he didn't anticipate any other travel restrictions but said that could change depending on the spread of the virus.
"The variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said.
While administration officials believe the current vaccines will likely provide protection against the new variant, the U.S. will do everything possible to accelerate the production of new vaccines or boosters if needed, the president said.
"We're throwing everything we can at this virus, tracking it from every angle, and that's what we have to keep doing," Biden said.
Biden made the remarks after meeting with his Covid advisers Monday morning, following a World Health Organization warning that the global risk of the new omicron variant is “very high” as the list of countries reporting cases of the variant grows.
Administration officials have said it could be several weeks before they know whether the variant has the ability to erode the protection offered by the vaccine and what level of severity and transmissibility it has. In the meantime, public health officials have said they believe the surge in antibodies created by a booster shot could offer one of the best defenses for the time being.
Only a fraction of eligible Americans have gotten booster shots despite data showing a significant dropoff in vaccine effectiveness after six months. Just 42 percent of seniors have received their third dose despite having been eligible for a booster since September, while 30 percent of those 50 and over have had a booster shot.
Earlier this month, the FDA authorized booster shots for all adults six months after they were vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna shots and two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot.
The variant has triggered a level of alarm across the globe not seen since the early days of the pandemic. The large number and location of the mutations of the omicron variant suggest that it may be highly transmissible and able to escape the body’s immune response and some of the protection offered by vaccines, infectious disease experts have said.
The new variant was first detected in southern Africa last week, and has now been detected in countries around the world, including Canada, Scotland and Portugal. Facing growing pressure to move quickly, Biden said on Friday the U.S. would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries, going into effect Monday.
Biden said the U.S would see the variant within its borders despite travel restrictions.
"While we have that travel restrictions can slow the speed of omicron, it cannot prevent it. But here's what it does: it gives us time," Biden said.
The U.S. was already seeing an increase in Covid infections before the new variant was identified, with more than 1,000 people continuing to die each day from the virus and hospitals reaching capacity. Public health officials had warned the uptick could turn into another winter surge in cases as the colder weather pushed people indoors and more Americans traveled for holiday gatherings.