President Joe Biden called for concern but not alarm as the United States sets records for daily reported COVID-19 cases and his administration has struggled to allay concerns over shortages tests, school closings and other disruptions caused by the omicron variant.
In remarks Tuesday ahead of a meeting with his COVID-19 response team at the White House, Biden aimed to express his administration’s urgency to tackle omicron and to convince wary Americans that the current situation bears little resemblance to it. at the start of the pandemic or during the murderous winter of last year. The president pointed out that vaccines, boosters and therapeutic drugs have reduced the danger to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are fully immunized.
“You can still get COVID, but it’s highly unlikely, very unlikely, that you will get seriously ill,” Biden said of those vaccinated.
“There is no excuse, there is no excuse for someone not to be vaccinated,” he added. “This continues to be an unvaccinated pandemic.” He also encouraged Americans, including newly eligible teens ages 12 to 15, to be given a booster dose of the vaccines for maximum protection.
Compared to a year ago, more Americans are employed, most children are in classrooms, and death and serious illness are on the decline – precipitously among those vaccinated.
“We’re in a very different place from a year ago,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked if the country has lost control of the virus.
Yet in recent weeks Americans have seen dire warnings about hospitals reaching capacity due to staff shortages, thousands of holiday flight cancellations in part because crews were sick or in quarantine, and intermittent reports of school closings due to the more communicable variant.
In a conference call with governors, Dr.Anthony Fauci Biden’s senior scientific adviser on COVID-19, said Americans “shouldn’t be complacent” even though initial data shows omicron variant produces disease less severe than previous strains. But, he said, the number of people infected with omicron “could exceed the positive impact of reduced severity” and “seriously stress our hospitals”
While most schools across the country remain open, Biden has targeted those that have closed, saying he believes they have the money for tests and other safety measures. “I think schools should stay open,” he said.
The president also announced that the United States is doubling its order of an antiviral pill produced by Pfizer that was recently cleared by the FDA to prevent serious illness and death from COVID-19. That means 20 million doses, with the first 10 million pills to be delivered by June.
A senior administration official said that combined with other therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, 4 million effective treatments for the omicron variant would be available by the end of January.
The pills are “a game changer and have the potential to dramatically alter the impact of COVID-19, the impact it has had on this country and our people,” Biden said.
Biden is under pressure to alleviate the nationwide shortage of tests people use to determine if themselves or their family members are infected. Long queues and chaotic scenes during the holidays have marred the administration’s image as having the pandemic in hand.
“In testing, I know it’s still frustrating. Believe me, it’s frustrating for me, but we’re making improvements, ”Biden said.
In a turnaround, the White House announced last month that it would make 500 million rapid antigen tests available to requesting Americans, but it will be weeks, if not months, before those tests become widely available. The administration notes that these tests are in addition to the existing supply of rapid tests and that even a small increase will help alleviate some of the shortages. In addition, private insurers will be required to cover the cost of home testing from the end of the month.
Test makers have until Tuesday evening to meet the government’s contract request, with the first prizes expected to be awarded this week, Psaki said. The administration is still developing a system for Americans to order tests and a way to ship them to people’s homes.
Pressed when the first tests reach the Americans, Psaki said, “I don’t have an update on this at this time.”
In a letter Monday, GOP Sens. Richard Burr and Roy Blunt, senior Republicans on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions and a Senate Subcommittee on Health Appropriations, respectively, have asked the Department of Health and Human Services social responses about how the administration was working to address testing shortages nationwide.
“With over $ 82.6 billion specifically earmarked for testing and flexibility within the ministry to allocate additional funds from additional COVID-19 bills or annual credits when needed, we don’t know why we are facing such dire circumstances now, “they wrote. “This does not appear to be due to a lack of funding, but a more fundamental lack of strategy and an inability to anticipate future testing needs on the part of the administration.”
White House officials noted that the surge in demand for testing is due not only to the omicron, but also to people looking to travel safely during the holidays and return to school afterwards, and that shortages are global in nature.
“It turns out Omicron is driving increased demand for testing … everywhere,” tweeted Ben Wakana, deputy director of strategic communications and engagement for the White House COVID-19 response team, highlighting similar shortages in the UK, Canada and Australia.
Associated Press editors Darlene Superville in Washington and Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington contributed to this report.