As the country is gripped by skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates only days before the winter holidays, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced his latest plan to prevent what he has warned could be “a winter of severe illness and death.”
“Your choice is not just a choice about you—it affects other people,” Biden said in remarks from the White House, the tone of which alternated between lecturing Americans to follow public health guidelines and pleading with the unvaccinated to do their “patriotic duty” by getting immunized. “You’re putting other people at risk. Your loved ones, your friends, neighbors, strangers you run into, and your choice can be the difference between life or death.”
Biden’s obvious frustration with the refusal of many Americans to get vaccinated matched stunning numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing record cases of new daily infections on Monday—nearly 300,000 people—with no sign of stopping. The Omicron variant’s transmissibility and contagiousness has stunned public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, who has called the virus’ ability to spread “extraordinary.”
“It is going to be a tough few weeks, months, as we get deeper into the winter,” Fauci said on CNN on Sunday.
Biden’s plan—the latest in a long series of new plans to prevent the spread of the virus with mixed results so far—will include dispatching 1,000 military medical personnel to hospitals that have been stretched beyond capacity even before Omicron’s arrival, as well as purchasing 500 million rapid tests to be distributed to the public at zero cost. (The rapid tests idea was one his administration ridiculed only a few weeks ago.)
But the tests will not be available until January, senior officials told reporters on a Monday night briefing call before the president’s speech, and given the rates of rapid test manufacturing domestically, they will almost certainly not be ready all at once. The total capacity for at-home rapid test manufacturing in the United States is currently only 200 million a month, even with the implementation of the Defense Production Act to increase capacity.
Asked about the likely delay in releasing the half-billion rapid tests, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters ahead of Biden’s speech that “we’ve quadrupled, over the past couple of months, our testing capacity,” and that while many details of the testing release are still undecided—including how many tests a household can order—the administration is “working through all those various important details right now.”
“We’re doing this as quickly as possible,” Psaki said.
Asked whether the delay in testing availability was a “failure,” given the enormous surge in cases and hospitalizations in the past week, Biden said that the government could never have adequately prepared for Omicron’s devastation.
“COVID is spreading so rapidly you notice it just happened almost overnight,” Biden said. “The alarm bell went off. I don’t think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did… The Omicron virus spread more rapidly than anybody thought.”
Biden’s announcement of the new testing strategy, which includes the creation of new federal testing sites around the country, was a positive development for medical and disease specialists.
“The steps to be announced by President Biden are welcome and important,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a medical doctor and a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and of Medicine. “For example, there are data showing that COVID-19 mortality was higher in hospitals that have been overwhelmed compared with those where capacity has not been exceeded. Therefore, steps to prevent hospitals and staff from being overloaded should save lives.”
But there are concerns that Biden’s response—which began and concluded with yet another plea for unvaccinated people to get their immunizations after nearly a year—still focuses too much on individual behavior to solve a societal crisis.
The president did take aim at major purveyors of disinformation about the pandemic on cable news and social media, calling their actions “dangerous” for public health and demanding they “stop it, stop it now.”
“These companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters,” Biden said forcefully. “It’s wrong. It’s immoral.”
In his speech, Biden returned to the same message he’s been delivering to Americans for months: “Get vaccinated now—it’s free, it’s convenient. I promise you, it saves the lives.”
“Honest to God,” Biden continued, “I believe it your patriotic duty.”
Biden said that if the people you spend the holidays with are vaccinated, “particularly if you’ve gotten your booster shot,” then you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as planned.
The Biden administration has steadfastly refused to implement things like vaccination requirements for domestic air travel, focusing instead on encouraging people to seek out boosters and to encourage their friends and family to do so as well. But given the political realities of COVID-regulation fatigue and vaccine-averse Americans, there’s not much more that can be done, Brewer said.
“Requiring vaccinations and boosters for every eligible person would be the most prudent and likely effective one, but that option has run into political and legal challenges in this country. Hopefully, individuals who have chosen not to be vaccinated yet will reassess their decision considering omicron’s rapid spread around the world and across the country.”
The White House has pushed back aggressively about the potential for lockdowns, the mere prospect of which has sent stocks plummeting in recent days
“This is not a speech about locking the country down,” Psaki told reporters on Monday. “This is a speech outlining and being directly clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we’re going to take to increase access, increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.”