The Biden administration is once again on the defensive as the pandemic cuts its wildly unpredictable course, upending American lives with the holidays around the corner and the tools that could make for safer gathering – widespread, easily available testing – in short supply nearly two years into the crisis.
The Omicron variant, which may more easily evade vaccines, accounted for 73% of coronavirus cases in the US last week, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates posted Monday.
It hit close to home on Monday evening, when the White House revealed that a mid-level staff member who is “a close contact” of the President tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday morning after spending about 30 minutes “in proximity to the President on Air Force One” on Friday. Biden received a negative test on Monday and was continuing with his daily schedule, with plans to take another test on Wednesday. In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that the aide was fully vaccinated and boosted and had tested negative before the flight.
Biden will address the nation on Tuesday about his plans for fighting the virus at a time when testing lines lengthen around the country and many anxious Americans weigh whether to cancel Christmas travel plans. To address one of the most pressing concerns about the availability of tests, the President plans to announce that the government is purchasing a half-billion at-home rapid Covid-19 tests that will be distributed at no cost to Americans who request them through a website. The tests will not be available until next month.
Biden hopes to balance a tone of caution about the threat of the fast-moving new variant – reinforcing the need for more Americans to get vaccinated and boosted – with notes of reassurance that the nation is much better equipped to handle a potential winter surge than it was just a year ago.
But the challenge for the Biden administration in the weeks ahead was defined in stark terms on Monday night by Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who predicted a “national viral blizzard” in the coming weeks that will place significant strain on the nation’s health care system.
Because Omicron appears to be so much more contagious, “even though more people who get it have milder illness, so many more people overall will get it that I think we’re going to see a real challenge in our health care system over the course of the next three to eight weeks,” Osterholm said on CNN’s “AC360.”
“We can expect 10% to 30% of health care workers to get infected during that time – people who are vaccinated who have breakthrough infections and that is only going to add to the burden then of trying to provide care all at the same time through all 50 states.”
The first known confirmed Omicron-related death in the United States was announced in Texas on Monday. The deceased man “was unvaccinated and had been infected with COVID-19 previously,” according to Harris County Public Health. “The individual was at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 due to his unvaccinated status and had underlying health conditions.”
A delicate balance to strike
Biden plans to emphasize that while vaccinated Americans will experience breakthrough cases due to the highly transmissible nature of Omicron, their cases will likely be milder and in some cases asymptomatic, Psaki said, as she previewed the speech Monday. But he will also stress that White House health experts have continued to advise that Americans are 14 times more likely to die of Covid if they have not been vaccinated.
“He’ll issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths. That is not trying to scare people – or maybe it is – trying to make clear to people in the country what the risks are here of not being vaccinated,” Psaki said. On a more hopeful note, she pointed out that Americans are in a very different place than they were back in March 2020 when they did not have access to vaccines or treatments now available: “To be clear, Covid-19 is not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals that it was March 2020.”
“This is not a speech about locking the country down,” Psaki added when asked during Monday’s press briefing about whether Americans should expect any new restrictions as Biden outlines his next steps for dealing with the virus.
For months now, the White House has been struggling to find that balance between caution and optimism as some Biden advisers have encouraged the President to pivot from a message about how the US is beating the pandemic toward one more realistically rooted in how Americans can live alongside it, as CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond have reported.
While Biden’s handling of Covid still serves as the high-water mark within his approval ratings – even on that metric Americans give him lower ratings than they did earlier this year – his messaging on Covid has proved challenging because so many Americans expected the nation to be emerging from the pandemic at this point rather than retrenching.
‘You’d think we’d be in better shape’
On Monday, the White House faced a fusillade of questions about measures it could have taken to prepare for the potential winter surge – including whether the administration should have encouraged all Americans to get boosters at an earlier stage so more people would be protected from Omicron; why the definition of “fully vaccinated” still doesn’t include boosters; and why rapid coronavirus tests are in such short supply at such a late stage of the pandemic.
“It’s frustrating because, again, two years into the pandemic, you’d think we’d be in better shape,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on “The Lead” Monday when asked about the scarcity of rapid tests. “This is one where they have not done a particularly good job. We need to get a lot more rapid tests out there. They’re coming in and out. You can get them and then they disappear … It is possible to get them, but they are far more scarce than they should be.”
One area facing shortages is New York state, where Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state had seen nearly a threefold increase in the number of reported Covid cases in one week and had broken its record for the fourth consecutive day for the highest number of Covid-19 cases. State officials called on the federal government to invoke the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to produce more over-the-counter tests. The Democratic governor said that some 10 million at-home tests are expected to arrive in the state in the coming weeks.
Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer at eMed, a company promoting rapid at-home testing, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan Monday that the US continues to treat testing as a “medical device,” rather than a means to allow people to go about their daily lives with minimal disruptions. That has meant the US has regulated tests in a “very slow, arduous fashion that has left the United States far behind our peer nations in terms of getting Americans access to these tests,” he said.
Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the US should “flood the system with testing” and “have tests available for anyone who wants them.”
But Mina noted that the message from the federal government “continues to be: ‘We’re going to…’”
“What I’ve said throughout this pandemic is if we wait and see, then by the time we’re seeing, it’s always too late to act, and unfortunately we’ve been slow to get these out to Americans,” Mina said of rapid tests. “I don’t think it’s too little, too late now, but we should absolutely be doing everything we can right now, so that a month from now, we’re not still saying, ‘We’re going to be doing this later.’”
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, acknowledged Monday that the administration still has work to do on the testing front and said that Biden will have more to say about that topic in his speech.
“We have made a lot of progress this year, getting more over-the-counter tests, quadrupling our supply of tests over the last half of the year, but we’ve got to do more,” he said Monday night on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
“Our goal is for everyone who needs a test and wants a test to be able to access it, period, full stop.”