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There was a telling moment during President Joe Biden’s remarks on the new Omicron coronavirus variant at the White House Monday. He’s all in on doing everything he can to get Americans vaccinated and politely asking them to mask up, but he’s not likely to go the direction of some European leaders and push lockdowns any time soon.
Biden had been trying to find balance, saying that “this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
He raised several points to drill home:
- We don’t know everything we need to know about Omicron. It’s not time to panic about a new variant, which was first identified in South Africa. It’s also not time to ignore it.
- Omicron is coming to the US no matter what. The virus is going to come here, regardless of new travel restrictions that went into effect Monday. Those, he said, have been put in place to slow the speed of the variant’s spread and allow the US to prepare, not to stop it from entering the country. Some experts think it may be here already.
- Vaccines. vaccines. vaccines. The best way to protect yourself is through vaccination and booster shots.
- Mask indoors at public places even if you’re vaccinated. Biden asked people to start wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, to help stop the spread of Covid-19. In the UK, where Omicron cases have been identified, masks are once again required in shops.
- Stay tuned. The federal government is working with drug makers in case an update to vaccine recommendations is needed, although Biden said additional measures are likely not necessary.
“Should” get a booster. That last point was particularly interesting – that Biden would even be mentioning the possibility for updated vaccine protocols. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened its booster recommendation specifically because of the Omicron variant. Instead of saying all vaccinated people over age 18 “may” get a booster, the CDC now says they all “should.”
So what was the telling moment? The telling moment came after Biden’s remarks, when he was asked to explain his comment about a forthcoming plan to deal with Omicron – which he kept mispronouncing as “Omnicron.” (Aside: It’s pronounced “OH-muh-kron,” according to CNN’s health team.)
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Biden said, “On Thursday, I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight Covid this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”
A reporter followed up and asked Biden why lockdowns are off the table.
“If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for lockdown,” he said.
This comment was both true and confounding because what we’ve learned over the past few months is that a lot of Americans aren’t going to get vaccinated or wear masks.
What I heard from Biden’s response, however, is that it doesn’t matter how a new variant spreads – the federal government isn’t going to pick a political fight over lockdowns. The country plowed through the Delta surge this summer and fall and emerged with many Americans bucking the idea of masks in schools or vaccine requirements at jobs.
Biden’s response differs from the one in parts of Europe, where some towns and countries have returned to some form of lockdown as Covid-19 cases and deaths rise there due to the Delta variant. The Washington Post visited a town put in semi-lockdown in Belgium and reported on lockdowns in Slovakia and Austria and a curfew in the Netherlands. Western European countries, so far, have had generally lower numbers of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people than the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
New conspiracy theory. Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson – a former White House doctor – is among those spreading the silly idea that Democrats and others are raising concerns about Omicron to help them politically before elections in November 2022. OMG. Stop.
The latest on US vaccinations. The US still hasn’t reached 60% of the population fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. Perhaps the vaccination of kids ages 5-11 will push that figure up as they get their second doses.
But developments on vaccine efforts and requirements are all over the place.
Punishments delayed. The Biden administration told some federal agencies they could delay punishment of federal workers who have not been vaccinated. Most federal workers were supposed to be vaccinated by November 22, and 92% have received at least a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Some workers have requested or been granted an exemption, bringing 96.5% of federal workers into compliance with the rule, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Request denied. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer rejected a request Monday to block Mass General Brigham’s vaccine requirement for the Massachusetts hospital system’s 80,000 employees.
Requirement on hold. Separately, a federal judge in Missouri partially blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements for certain health care workers. The order only covers 10 states that brought the case.
This vaccine requirement, which is set to go into effect December 6 in most of the country, came from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The judge, in halting the requirement, gave his own medical advice when he said the “public would suffer little, if any, harm from maintaining the ‘status quo’ through the litigation of this case.”
He pointed to potential staffing shortages, particularly among rural health care providers, as a concern.
When will we know if vaccines work against Omicron? Probably within the next two weeks, Dr. Peter Hotez told CNN’s Jim Acosta over the weekend, explaining how scientists can test vaccines against the variants.
How is Omicron traveling the world? In CNN’s main international report on the Omicron variant, I noticed cases in the Netherlands have been traced to people traveling from South Africa. Cases in Canada have been traced to people traveling from Nigeria. It has already gone around the globe.
Putting a vaccine requirement in place. Proof of vaccination has been required for many public activities in Los Angeles, including indoor dining, since mid-November. But an enforcement portion went into effect Monday. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination against Covid-19.
Taking vaccine requirements away. Compare Los Angeles to Disney World in Florida, which last week halted its vaccine requirement for employees to come into compliance with Florida’s new anti-vaccine-requirement law.
Bad news for doing the right thing. There’s a sad note of irony for a country like South Africa, where health authorities tracked the Omicron variant and alerted the world. Their good behavior is being punished with travel restrictions.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the travel ban against South Africa and seven other countries in Africa is “not to punish” but to “protect.”
The US has donated nearly 8 million vaccine doses to South Africa, and Psaki said the country turned down the offer of more.