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WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Monday that the expected arrival of the Omicron variant won’t lead to new restrictions, even as he admitted that little is known about this newest strain of the coronavirus, which was first detected in South Africa.
Biden vowed that his administration would fight the new variant “not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”
He reiterated that same message later, when taking questions from reporters, asserting that lockdowns of the kind that marked the first stages of the pandemic response in 2020 were not being considered “for now.” He added that “if people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there’s no need for the lockdown.”
Restrictions like school and business closures, as well as limits on gatherings, are almost always implemented at the state and local level. Still, the president’s words carry significant weight with the elected and public health officials tasked with making those decisions.
Biden met with his pandemic response team on Sunday, after returning to Washington from his Thanksgiving weekend, and then again on Monday morning before delivering remarks on Omicron from the White House. It was the first time he had spoken about the new variant since the World Health Organization branded Omicron “a variant of concern” on Friday.
Biden praised South Africa for quickly sharing its findings, even as he justified restricting travel from there and seven other nations. “It gives us time,” he said.
Omicron slipped the bounds of southern Africa with ease and has already been discovered in Asia, Australia, Europe and, with Canada’s announcement on Sunday, North America.
The latest on the Omicron variant
“Sooner or later, we are going to see cases of the Omicron variant here in the U.S.” Biden said. The prospect of fighting yet another variant presents Biden with yet another challenge, on top of inflation, supply chain shortages and political resistance to his domestic agenda. He had essentially declared victory over the coronavirus on July 4, only to have his plans for a “summer of freedom” become undone by the Delta variant.
What the Omicron variant will mean for the months ahead is unclear. It does seem, however, that Biden does not believe that calling for or imposing new restrictions would be feasible.
“We’re going to fight and beat this new variant as well,” Biden said.
It could take a week or more for scientists to discover just how much protection vaccines provide against the Omicron variant. But there is bound to be some protection, especially for people who have received their booster shots.
"I know you’re tired of hearing me say this — the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” Biden said.
Some 196 million people have been fully vaccinated in the United States, and 37 million have received a booster shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drugmakers that produce the vaccines are monitoring whether any changes are needed to tackle Omicron.
Biden said he would provide a more detailed assessment on Thursday. “This variant is a cause for concern,” he argued, “not a cause for panic.”
He also asked people to continue wearing masks indoors, a practice many had hoped to leave off, with the rise in vaccinations. Washington, D.C. had lifted its own mask mandate just days ago. It is not clear how long that reprieve will last.