President Joe Biden has spent hours over the last week peppering his medical team with questions about the quickly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, pressing them for more data and asking when his team would know more.
On Wednesday, they shared with him a major development: The first case of the variant had been detected in California, an occurrence they’d previously warned him was essentially inevitable. Now, he is preparing to deliver a major update to the nation on his strategy to defeat it.
The emergence of the Omicron variant a week ago has thrust the White House into an intense balancing act designed to prevent panic while still making aggressive efforts to mitigate spread of a still-unknown threat. Officials quickly determined they must present a carefully calibrated response, even while taking steps like restricting travel that have drawn outcry from some public health experts as arbitrary and overly drastic.
“If you gotta do it, you gotta do it,” Biden privately told advisers as they discussed implementing the restrictions, which officials have said are not permanent and can be adjusted as more is learned.
Since then, Biden has been directly involved in drafting the speech he will deliver Thursday at the National Institutes of Health, instructing officials that he wants to “talk in a language that the American people can understand about how this affects their lives.”
Officials were still discussing some of those next steps on Tuesday evening, when representatives across multiple agencies huddled to weigh a tightening of new testing rules for incoming international travelers, including those who are vaccinated. They eventually decided on shortening the window for passengers to get tested before their flights to the US. The order was still going through regulatory review Wednesday and it’s unclear when it will be implemented.
Aiming to navigate the complicated terrain of combating a strain about which little is known, Biden will make the 10-minute helicopter flight to NIH to lay out what he says is a robust strategy for combating spread of Covid this winter without instituting new lockdowns or shutdowns – politically toxic steps he hopes to avoid even as his administration works to prevent a major new surge.
“We’ll fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said Wednesday ahead of his address.
When Biden last visited the NIH’s laboratories three weeks after taking office, his tour guide offered him some good news: The Covid-19 vaccines that had just been authorized should work against variants of the coronavirus.
“It may eventually lose efficacy, but I think we are OK for now – until additional mutations are accumulated,” Dr. Barney Graham, chief of the lab and deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at NIH, told Biden as he pointed at images of a red-spotted virus on his computer screen.
Nine months later, Biden returns to the agency’s campus with the new variant – one with about 50 mutations – causing fresh uncertainty over the future of a pandemic the President had once hoped was in its final stages.
“The goal is to outline his plan for the winter to make sure we are taking all the steps we can to protect against Delta, Omicron and any variant we may face,” a senior administration official said.
Biden will lay out the strategy without having many concrete details about Omicron itself, which government scientists say could take weeks to better understand. The plan he and his team have rolled out for now includes a new push for vaccinations and fresh urgency in promoting booster shots, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially urged for all adults starting this week.
Learning from Delta
Aides say they are applying some of the lessons learned from a shaky initial response to the Delta variant this summer, like acknowledging the litany of unknowns about the new strain, while still making explicit the action plan to combat it.
Delta took hold in the United States and caused a return to mask-wearing rules and other restrictions after Biden sought to signal the pandemic was nearing its end – a shift that corresponded with a slump in the President’s approval ratings. Privately, many of Biden’s allies griped at the White House’s early handling of Delta, including the President’s messaging as the variant spread.
“Certainly, they can employ lessons learned and improve on messaging around the virus,” one Democratic strategist told CNN. “But what they desperately need is a break from the need to communicate about the virus, which is something that has proven hard to come by or control.”
This time, administration officials had been bracing since nearly the moment news of the Omicron variant emerged for it to be detected in the United States, mindful the restrictions and rules were limited in their efficacy. The inevitability came to pass Wednesday when the CDC announced an individual who recently traveled from South Africa had been infected with the Omicron variant.
Biden’s top advisers determined over the long Thanksgiving weekend that acknowledging the uncertainty, while still preparing the country for Omicron’s potential arrival, was the best course of action. Top health officials have held meetings and calls “nonstop” since being alerted to major concerns about the variant, one administration official said.
The Omicron variant has lent “a greater sense of urgency around our prior sense of urgency,” a senior official said.
Officials have also pointed to clearer booster guidelines as a welcome boon to their messaging efforts.
This week Biden delivered his plainest appeal yet: If you’ve been fully vaccinated since June 1, it’s time for another dose. There had been deep frustration inside the administration over complicated messaging surrounding booster shots, with several officials conceding to CNN that initial restrictions on who should get one and when only spurred confusion when it was clear immunity wanes for all age groups. Now, the CDC is urging all adults Americans to get boosters.
“The booster messaging has been terrible,” Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and professor of molecular medicine, told CNN. “It was abundantly apparent weeks ago that everyone needs boosted.”
It remains to be seen if the US government will alter its definition of fully vaccinated.
Though some have advocated for it to be changed to three shots, as other nations have done, the administration is not currently considering doing so, according to two officials, in part over concerns it could disrupt ongoing court battles over Biden’s vaccine mandates.
Biden wants to project optimism but Omicron looms
As Americans enter the holiday period, Biden is eager to promote his advances against the virus and demonstrate a more normal festive season than last year.
That makes the new variant an unwelcome development for a President whose success will ultimately be determined by whether he can contain the pandemic. His advisers have cited defeating Covid as the number one way to restore his weakened political standing and to clear away remaining economic troubles, like inflation.
“I think they felt an urgent need to address this both for purposes of calming people and giving people a sense that he was on top of it,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser in President Barack Obama’s White House and a CNN senior political commentator. “If you look at some of the language he used about how he’s throwing everything at it and they’ll leave no stone unturned and so on, that was clearly a motivation.”
The Republican National Committee has already attacked Biden for “failing to shut down the virus as he promised,” and other Republicans have already begun criticizing his response to the new variant – often misleadingly.
Underscoring the perils for Biden, the Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers Tuesday the Omicron variant threatens the American economic recovery.
Even as the White House’s attention turned back to Covid this week, Biden went ahead with his planned trip to promote the new infrastructure law in Minnesota, which he says can alleviate supply chain clogs that are driving higher prices. He also met this week with CEOs from a range of sectors to discuss the holiday shopping season.
The White House said it wasn’t expecting to rethink his travel plans or the slate of upcoming holiday parties in light of the new variant — at least while many of its properties remain unknown.
After learning of the new strain on Thanksgiving Day, officials accelerated the pace of meetings, phone calls and video conferences to align both their scientific and messaging efforts in the narrow window that exists to control the fallout. But even among some White House aides, the news of a new, potentially more virulent strain was met with weary forbearance.
“It’s a collective ‘ugh,’” one official said.
News of the new variant arrived over the holiday, when White House and federal public health officials were spread out at family gatherings around the country. Speaking to NBC’s Al Roker from a cream-colored sitting room at the oceanfront mansion where he was staying on Nantucket, Biden heralded the relative normalcy of this year’s holiday.
“After two years, you’re back. America is back. There’s nothing we’re unable to overcome, Al,” he said, watching himself on a flatscreen television.
The next morning, he was briefed over the phone for roughly 30 minutes by Dr. Anthony Fauci and other officials about the variant and followed up with several phone calls with members of his Covid response team. As he was strolling through the island’s quaint downtown shops that afternoon, he acknowledged the uncertainty over the potential threat.
“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern; it seems to spread rapidly,” he said on a rainy brick sidewalk