US President Joe Biden told Americans that the emergence of the omicron variant of Covid-19, which the World Health Organization says poses a “very high” global risk, is “cause for concern, not a cause for panic”.
“The best protection ... is getting fully vaccinated, and getting a booster shot,” he said, adding that officials are developing “contingency plans” with drug manufacturers for additional vaccines and “booster” doses “if needed”.
His comments during an address to the nation on 29 November echo those from Dr Anthony Fauci, who urged Americans not to be “freaking out” about the variant as scientists gather data over the next two weeks to determine its transmissibility and health impacts.
“We should be doing the things that we know work when you’re dealing with a pandemic virus,” he told CBS on Monday.
President Biden said the virus will be fought “not with shutdowns, not with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
He added that the vaccines and boosters would remain “free of charge” to Americans; more than 196 million Americans, or nearly 60 per cent of the US population, has received both doses of two-dose Covid-19 vaccines from either Pfizer or Moderna, or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
More than 37 million Americans have received a “booster” vaccine dose, including more than 42 per cent of Americans over age 65. Nearly 70 per cent of the US has received at least one dose.
The latest variant has not yet been detected in the US, though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is likely to be “identified quickly” if so.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said there is “reason to be pretty optimistic” against the emergence of the omicron variant among those who are vaccinated against Covid-19.
“All of the other variants that have emerged during this Covid-19 pandemic have shown response to the vaccine, including delta,” Dr Collins said on on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday.
Follow live updates as they happened
We’re closing today’s live coverage of the Biden administration’s response to omicron and the latest updates on Covid-19 in the US. Stay tuned with The Independent.
Vaccine holdouts under federal mandate won’t be disciplined until 2022, White House tells union
Federal employees who have not complied with requirements to be vaccinated against Covid-19 won’t face serious repercussions until 2022, according to guidance from the White House to unions, The Washington Post reports.
As of last week, 92 per cent of roughly 3.5 million federal and military personnel received at least one dose of vaccine, while another 4.5 percent had requested exemptions.
Federal agencies will offer only “education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcement process” and take no further actions beyond a possible letter of reprimand “for most employees who have not yet complied with the vaccination requirement until the new calendar year begins in January,” the letter says, according to The Post.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that “nothing has changed on our deadline or our approach to the federal employee vaccine requirement,” adding that counseling has “long been our approach and our policy.”
New York and New Jersey officials prepare for omicron
Health officials have not yet confirmed that omicron is in the US, but governors of New York and New Jersey are preparing for its emergence. Three confirmed infections have appeared in nearby Ontario, Canada.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who has preemptively declared a state of emergency with the emergence of the latest Covid-19 variant, told residents that “we are not defenseless” and urged them to wear face coverings and get vaccinated.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said “we must be ready now in anticipation”, particularly because of the state’s proximity to major travel hubs like Newark airport and New York City area airports JFK and LaGuardia.
“I’ll be stunned if it’s not already in the US,” he said on Monday.
Governor Hochul has not implemented a statewide mask mandate but added that she is “keeping every option on the table” in preparation.
The spread of the highly contagious delta variant saw a surge in infections in New York, appearing to undermine progress while the state worked to combat transmissions with steadily rising vaccine uptake.
Fauci: ‘We should not be freaking out’
Biden and health officials have now spread the word that the US should not be panicking about the emergence of the latest Covid-19 variant, and have urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster doses.
“We should not be freaking out,” Dr Fauci told told CBS Monday. “We should be doing the things that we know work when you’re dealing with a pandemic virus. It’s not the time to panic.
He added: “We should be concerned, and our concern should spur us to do the things that we know work.”
Vaccine targeting omicron could take months, Moderna CEO says
The CEO of Moderna has said that it would take months to create and deliver a vaccine targeting the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
But Stéphane Bancel told CNBC on Monday that a higher dose of the company’s booster could be available sooner.
BioNTech also announced on Monday that the company has already started developing a vaccine focused on combatting the omicron variant.
“We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on the omicron variant as well as the development of an adapted vaccine as part of our standard procedure for new variants,” a company spokesperson told Insider.
‘It will be months before the Omicron-specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities’
Psaki: Travel ban to help delay omicron spread to give US time to prepare
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that the recently announced ban on travel into the US from several African countries is not meant to be punitive but to give officials more time to bolster its defenses against Covid-19.
“The objective here is not to punish. It is to protect the American people,” she said.
“That delay is going to help us have necessary time to do research from health and medical teams, get more people vaccinated and get more people boosted.”
GOP blames Biden for omicron while undermining vaccines
A statement from the Republican Party blames Biden for the spread of the omicron variant, despite ongoing attempts among GOP officials and right-wing figures and networks to undermine vaccines.
Just yesterday, Republican US Rep Nancy Mace promoted “natural immunity” on Fox News, then promoted vaccines on CNN.
The editor of right-wing news outlet Washington Examiner also appeared on Fox to blame Biden for lack of vaccine uptake. While there have been more Covid-19-related deaths in the US in 2021 than 2020, those deaths are nearly all among unvaccinated Americans.
A CDC study published in September found that people who were not fully vaccinated earlier this year were more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalised and 11 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.
Omicron is in North America, as Canada officials confirm infections
Canadian health officials announced on Sunday that the omicron variant has reached North America, with two confirmed infections in Ontario.
Ontario health officials Christine Elliott and Kieran Moore said in a joint statement that two people who recently travelled to Nigeria tested positive for the variant.
“We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers irrespective of where they’re coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant,” they said in a statement.
Ontario is rapid testing travelers who have been to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, they said.
Omicron has not been detected in the US.
Watch: White House press secretary Jen Psaki to hold press briefing
Biden says lockdown not part of US winter Covid plan
Lockdowns and shutdowns are off the table in a forthcoming strategy for how the US will deal with any winter wave of Covid-19, Biden said on Monday.
The virus will be fought “not with shutdowns, not with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more,” Mr Biden said. He added that the vaccines and boosters would remain “free of charge” to Americans.
Mr Biden says lockdowns are off the table because they are unnecessary due to the availability of vaccines and masks as a Covid countermeasure
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