Joe Biden to give speech on Omicron as US braces for holiday surge

President to issue ‘stark warning of what the winter will look’ for unvaccinated Americans

Alex Woodward
New York
Saturday 18 December 2021 21:35
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Related video: White House dismisses mailing out at-home Covid tests

President Joe Biden will detail the administration’s response to the Omicron variant in a speech on Tuesday as Americans prepare for winter holidays amid a spike in Covid-19 infections and urgent pleas from health officials to get vaccinated.

The speech will outline how the federal government “will respond to this challenge” and will issue a “stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated,” according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

“We are prepared for the rising case levels, and [Mr Biden] will detail how we will respond to this challenge,” she said in a statement.

“He will remind Americans that they can protect themselves from severe illness from Covid-19 by getting vaccinated and getting their booster shot when they are eligible.”

More than 203 million Americans – or roughly 60 per cent of the US – have received the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or one shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More than 58 million people – about one in six Americans – have received a “booster” vaccine shot.

Roughly 30 per cent of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated.

The seven-day average of new confirmed cases in the US is more than 125,000, as of 17 December.

In New York, daily infections reached a record high of 21,027 on Friday, topping the 19,942 cases that were reported on 14 January during a bleak winter before the wide availability of vaccines.

Federal health officials believe the faster-spreading Omicron variant could result in a wave of infections hitting strained hospitals as soon as next month.

“In looking at early data on [the] transmissibility of Omicron from other countries, we expect to see the proportion of Omicron cases here in the United States continue to grow in the coming weeks,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said this week.

While Delta remains the dominant strain in the US, CDC officials believe Omicron is making up a rapidly-growing share of cases, as much as 13 per cent in states like New York and New Jersey.

The World Health Organization reported on Saturday that the variant is in 89 countries.

As researchers and health officials work to determine the severity of the more-contagious variant and the efficacy of vaccines against it, several reports have suggested that booster doses, in addition to the two-dose regimen, provide strong protection against severe disease.

President Biden’s speech follows his administration’s announcement of a “winter plan” to combat Covid, which includes an expanded booster campaign, more stringent protocols for international travel, and wider availability of tests and testing sites.

White House officials defended a widely criticized plan that would make Americans with private medical insurance file claims in order to be reimbursed for at-home testing kits, rather than make them freely available to all Americans without any upfront costs.

Vice President Kamala Harris also told The Los Angeles Times that the administration “didn’t see Delta coming”.

“I think most scientists did not – upon whose advice and direction we have relied – didn’t see Delta coming,” she said. “We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what ... this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”

On Thursday, the president issued a “direct” appeal to unvaccinated Americans, saying that the US is “looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated – for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm”.

“But there’s good news: If you’re vaccinated and you have your booster shot, you’re protected from severe illness and death,” he said.

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