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Amid this winter surge of Covid-19 cases across the country, CNN is reporting on an important pivot at the White House and among some public health officials – how to live with the virus instead of how to beat it.
That shift is occurring as many Americans struggle to find easy and affordable testing and as pictures of hours-long testing lines emerged over the weekend. President Joe Biden, as part of his address to the nation on Tuesday night, will announce a purchase of a half-billion at-home rapid Covid-19 tests and a plan to distribute them free starting next month to Americans who request them through a website.
Testing is ever more important. The Omicron variant may infect vaccinated people more easily than previous versions of the coronavirus, although the risk of severe illness seems to be low in vaccinated people.
The omicron variant causes over 73% of new coronavirus cases in the US, according to estimates posted Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a huge – and fast – increase. The week ending December 11, omicron was estimated at 12.6% of circulating virus, versus 87% for the Delta variant. Before that it was 3%.
Live with it. Get vaccinated. If the new message is that Americans must learn to live alongside Covid-19, it is a “potentially stark shift in messaging for a White House that once touted ‘freedom from the virus,’” according to CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond.
Public health experts are invading any airspace they can find to encourage Americans, again, for the umpteenth time, to get vaccinated.
“It’s going to take over,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, making clear that a spike in cases due to the Omicron variant is a foregone conclusion. It will tax a health system already battered by the Delta variant, he said, and could lead to record-high cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The question is how many people are vaccinated and boosted and more likely to avoid serious disease compared with those who are unvaccinated and who, new research shows, are 20 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than boosted people.
“There will be a stark difference between the experience of those who are vaccinated and boosted versus those who are unvaccinated,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Monday on “CBS Mornings.”
Here’s another variation on that idea, from Dr. Ashish Jha, who is dean of the Brown School of Public Health.
“The goal cannot be to avoid infection at all costs. That’s an unrealistic goal. It’s to prevent deaths and severe illness, which vaccines will do,” he said Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
On Monday, the city of Washington, DC, declared a state of emergency and re-imposed indoor masking rules. Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan, who is vaccinated and boosted, announced that he had he tested positive for Covid-19. Some school districts are going back to virtual learning for a limited time.
Now, can you find a test? If the idea is that Americans must learn to live with an ever-present Covid-19, there is an emerging consensus that the country has failed to get up to scratch on its testing capability.
Pictures from the weekend showed massive lines in New York and Florida as a crush of Americans began traveling for the winter holiday.
Unexpected demand. In New York, officials were surprised by the sudden demand for tests. Dr. Mitch Katz, president and CEO of the NYC Health + Hospitals public health system, said that they did not anticipate so much news about Omicron, nor supply chain issues that affected the supply of in-home tests.
“I’m sorry that demand was so enormous over the last few days – we did not anticipate so much news about Omicron, we did not anticipate that the supply chain would run out of the home tests. In my own pharmacies last week, there were shelves and shelves of home tests to take care of the demand. When I went by yesterday, there were none,” Katz said Monday.
“Good luck finding an at-home test in some parts of the country,” wrote CNN’s Jen Christensen and Tara Subramaniam over the weekend.
Testing needs to become easier and more accessible if people are going to build it into their plans.
Got a sore throat and the sniffles? You need a test.
(Note: When my vaccinated daughter woke up with the sniffles last week, we ended up getting her a rapid antigen test, which was cost prohibitive at $95 from a private company, and a PCR test, to be safe, which was covered by insurance. Both were negative. The rapid test was done in 20 minutes and the PCR test took 18 hours.)
Getting on a plane to see your family? Testing is not a bad idea and may be required, depending on your destination.
Experts say make testing ubiquitous. White House press secretary Jen Psaki made fun of the idea of sending a test to every American last week, but Christensen and Subramaniam write about efforts to hand out tests in large cities around the country.
The New York Times looked at the availability of tests in Europe, where at-home tests are available for a few dollars. In the US, they’ll set you back $25. To get one administered at a testing site can be even more.
“We continue to regulate (testing) in a very slow, arduous fashion, and that has left the United States far behind our peer nations in terms of getting Americans access to these tests,” said Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer at eMed, a company promoting rapid at-home testing.
The Biden administration, despite massive spending on tests, hasn’t done nearly enough to make sure people are getting tested for Covid-19 and have better access to tests, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, CNN medical analyst and a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday.
He argued that while the Biden administration has made sure that private insurers cover many tests, including at-home tests, more needs to be done to get them easily available and hassle-free.
“This is a massive failing by this administration,” Reiner said. Tests, he argued, are the way to keep the country open.
“We need to mobilize manufacturers to produce hundreds of millions of these tests and make them ubiquitous. That’s how you’re going to keep businesses open; that’s how you’re going to keep Broadway open; that’s how you’re going to keep your kids in school.”