- President Joe Biden has unveiled a new, multipronged strategy to tackle the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
- The plan includes adding clinics and personnel to make it easier for people to get vaccinated.
- The White House also plans to send 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests across the country.
- Additional support for hospitals that experience an influx of people with COVID-19 is also included in the plan.
As the highly contagious Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, President Joe Biden has outlined new measures to minimize its impact on the country.
The measures include expanding vaccination capacity so more people can get their primary doses or boosters, opening up additional government testing sites, mailing 500 million at-home tests to people in the United States, and deploying federal resources to support strained hospitals.
“We should all be concerned about Omicron but not panicked,” Biden said during an address at the White House on Dec. 21.
The president said Americans who are vaccinated, and especially those who are boosted, can comfortably celebrate the holidays with family and friends.
“If you are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you planned it,” Biden said.
However, the president issued a stark reminder for unvaccinated people about the risks of COVID-19, particularly with Omicron.
“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned. You’re at a high risk of getting sick,” Biden said. “The unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital — or even dying.”
More than 15 percent of U.S. adults have not received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The agency’s data also shows that unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely than fully vaccinated people to die from COVID-19. When compared with boosted people, unvaccinated people are 20 times more likely to die.
The president called on eligible Americans to get their booster dose.
“I got my booster shot as soon as they were available,” Biden said. “And just the other day, former President Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot. It may be one of the few things he and I agree on.”
Increased vaccination and testing capacity
To make it easier for people to get their booster or their first or second dose, the administration announced plans to open new pop-up vaccination clinics across the country.
The White House will also deploy additional vaccinators to increase capacity at sites and work with pharmacies to increase the number of doses they can administer.
In addition, the administration is taking steps to expand testing capacity in the country, essential for dealing with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
According to the CDC, on Dec. 18 the Omicron variant accounted for 73 percent of cases in the country, a jump from 12 percent a week earlier.
The federal government will set up additional testing sites around the country as well as make at-home COVID-19 tests available for people.
“The federal government will purchase one-half billion… additional at-home rapid tests, with delivery starting in January,” said Biden. “We’ll be getting these tests to Americans for free.”
This, along with increased testing and vaccination sites, will make it easier for people to protect themselves and others.
But the administration’s plan stops short of implementing additional restrictions to minimize the spread of the virus, such as a COVID-19 test requirement for domestic flights, new mask policies, or proof of vaccination measures.
This means cases will continue to rise, and as they do, hospitalizations will also increase.
To help healthcare systems — which are already strained by the ongoing Delta variant wave — survive this spike, the administration offered several steps to shore up hospital capacity.
This includes deploying U.S. service members with medical training and federal medical personnel to hospitals burdened by COVID-19, as well as providing hospitals with personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other critical supplies.
Step in the right direction, but testing lags
Jeffrey Levi, PhD, a professor of health policy and management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said the administration’s plan is “a major step in trying to address the multiple issues that we are facing.”
He said a key part of the president’s Dec. 21 speech was clearly communicating the risks Americans will face heading into the holidays and throughout the winter.
“The importance of being vaccinated and the importance of being boosted in rendering this variant less deadly is really critical for the American people to understand,” Levi told Healthline.
Levi added that the country’s healthcare system is in a better position to handle a surge in cases this winter than December 2020, thanks to the availability of vaccines and greater hospital capacity.
Dr. Mohammad Sobhanie, an infectious disease expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said the focus on greater access to tests is also a key element of the plan.
“In order to diagnose somebody with COVID, you have to have a positive test,” Sobhanie told Healthline.
“And if they can have the test at their home, they can swab themselves and call their physician and say, ‘I have COVID, based on the home test, what should I do next?’” he added.
However, Levi said the United States has been playing “catch-up” with testing capacity throughout the pandemic.
“[The administration’s plan] is a major step forward,” he said. “But especially given the concerns that so many people have around gathering during the holidays, the timing of the availability of more tests [in January] is going to be a challenge.”
Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, is concerned that the results of at-home tests won’t be reported, which will obscure the transmission of the virus in the community.
“It’s not enough just to send out tests or get more people tested,” Lee told Healthline. “You also have to set up a surveillance system to track where the virus is going and where it has higher activity, because that can help guide more targeted interventions.”
He also said people should remember that because the vaccines and boosters are not 100 percent effective, during surges we need to continue using multiple mitigation measures, such as face masks in indoor public spaces, better ventilation, and contact tracing.
“You can’t just assume that the vaccine will protect you like a brick wall,” Lee said. “There’s still the risk that you will get infected. That’s why it’s so important to layer on different interventions.”