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Biden seeks to recast pandemic fight, rejecting lockdowns and school closures as omicron surges

While the president said those with vaccinations and boosters should go about their lives, he issued a grave warning to unvaccinated Americans that they risked serious illness or death

President Biden said on Dec. 21 his administration will start delivering a half-billion free rapid tests to homes in January. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden sought to recast the fight against the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, insisting the United States would not lock down or close schools despite surging cases driven by the new, highly transmissible omicron variant.

Instead, Biden argued that Americans who are vaccinated and boosted remain largely protected from severe illness and should plan to celebrate the holidays with family and friends as normal.

“This is not March of 2020,” Biden said, referring to the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic as he spoke from the White House State Dining Room. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more.”

The president still issued a grave warning to unvaccinated Americans who he said have a “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated, but he spent much of his speech reassuring Americans the country has the tools to avoid the extreme measures that typified the early months of the pandemic response.

To that end, Biden detailed new plans to expand coronavirus testing sites across the country, distribute a half-billion free at-home tests and deploy more federal health resources to aid strained hospitals as the omicron variant drives a fresh wave of infections.

Biden’s speech marked the clearest distillation to date of a new message from the White House, as officials acknowledge the virus is unlikely to disappear but Americans no longer have to fully upend their daily lives even as cases rise. And it reflected the extent to which many Americans and political leaders show little appetite for the widespread shutdowns of the early pandemic period that hobbled the economy, forced millions of students into virtual learning, and sparked bitter partisan and cultural battles over how to combat the virus.

For the Democratic Party, Biden’s message indicates a shift away from being the party associated with strict covid mitigation measures as vaccines are widely available and proven to work against the latest variant. The change comes just before the start of a midterm election year in which Democrats are expected to face an uphill struggle, and lawmakers and strategists have urged party leaders to put forth a new message on the pandemic.

But more immediately, health experts fear a brutal period of exploding cases will overwhelm health systems and disrupt the nation’s economy. New confirmed infections in the United States have roughly doubled since early November, rising from about 76,000 cases on Nov. 9 to about 153,000 cases on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post’s rolling seven-day average. Hospitalizations have also increased by nearly 50 percent since early November, rising from about 47,000 on Nov. 9 to more than 69,000 now, driven by the older delta variant.

Early reports suggest that many people experience only mild symptoms from omicron, and vaccine boosters appear to protect against severe illness, although the White House is bracing for a new surge of hospital patients, driven by unvaccinated Americans and people with limited immune protection.

The omicron variant accounted for 73 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States between Dec. 12 and 18, according to modeled projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also published new analysis late Monday that warned that one worst-case scenario is likely to lead to massive peaks in infection exceeding earlier records as soon as January.

Despite Biden’s message, signs of disruption appeared throughout the nation. New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams postponed his Jan. 1 inauguration ceremony, and the National Hockey League announced it would become the first major professional sports league in North America to halt its season because of a spike in cases. Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association on Tuesday said it would forge ahead with scheduled games this week.

“Frankly, we’re having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview with ESPN. “This virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it.”

Dozens of NBA players have been sidelined by virus infections or close proximity to people who had tested positive, but league officials are reviewing whether it will relax protocols for players who are vaccinated and showing no symptoms of the virus.

At the White House, Biden acknowledged Americans are “tired, worried and frustrated” by the persistent virus, which he described as a “tough adversary,” but he stressed that “we’ve shown that we’re tougher; tougher because we have the power of science and vaccines that prevent illness and save lives.”

Speaking directly to parents, Biden said, “We don’t have to shut down schools because of covid-19. We can keep our K-12 schools open. That’s exactly what we should be doing.”

Biden even touted former president Donald Trump’s recent acknowledgment that he received his booster shot as Biden pressed Americans to get vaccinated and boosted. Fewer than one-third of fully vaccinated people have received a booster shot. Opposition to vaccines has been especially prevalent among Republicans as a number of prominent pro-Trump media figures have spread disinformation about the shots.

“Maybe one of the few things he and I agree on,” Biden said of Trump.

The White House is also taking steps to address massive testing shortages across the country, magnified by images of lengthy lines in major metropolitan areas as Americans struggle to find tests before the holidays. A lackluster testing infrastructure has plagued the country’s pandemic response since the start, and Biden promised during his campaign and again as president to address the problem.

But Biden grew defensive on Tuesday when pressed on why Americans were still having trouble finding access to tests.

“It didn’t take long at all,” Biden said. “What happened was the omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.”

As part of the new plan, the administration will start delivering a half-billion free rapid tests to homes next month, and health officials will set up a website where Americans can order them. More immediately, the federal government is setting up testing sites across the country, starting with one in New York City this week.

The Biden administration has emphasized increased testing as one of the pillars of its pandemic response, but it has been criticized for failing to provide at-home tests at low cost. Americans are often paying $25 for a pack of two tests, if they can find any at a pharmacy.

“The Trump administration’s biggest testing failure was trusting CDC scientists in the beginning to develop tests and that put us way behind when they failed. The Biden administration’s testing failure is probably worse,” said Chris Meekins, a Raymond James financial analyst and former federal emergency-response official, faulting the White House for falling behind other nations this year in rolling out rapid tests.

He added: “500 million tests sounds nice, but is woefully inadequate for what we will need and is way too late. Omicron is likely to be largely over by the time these tests become widely available, but maybe they will be ready for the next variant.”

To relieve overrun hospitals, the federal government will send emergency medical teams to six states — Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont — the president said. Some of those states, such as Michigan, had been suffering from case surges even before the announcement of the first omicron case in the United States this month.

The administration will also deploy an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health-care personnel to strained medical centers in January and February as needed, and Biden is set to order the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with states and territories to prepare more hospital beds ahead of expected surges.

Some public health experts cheered Biden’s latest plan, saying it met the moment.

“A for effort,” said Luciana Borio, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s a tough virus. It’s a tough pandemic. People are tired. The key now is to keep hospitals operating to avert needless deaths.”

But Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said she was focused on what she said was Biden’s failure to deliver an earlier plan: the lengthy national pandemic strategy, released on the president’s first day in office, that promised to “guide America out of the worst public health crisis in a century.”

“That’s a very good plan that has everything that we need in it,” said Raifman, posting on Twitter a list of the plan’s promises, which included nationwide masking, better virus data and creating a sense of common purpose. “COVID leadership has not only not implemented it, they have directly controverted virtually every item,” she added on Twitter.

And James Hamblin, a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health, faulted Biden for devoting so much of his speech to a familiar mantra: urging vaccine skeptics to get shots.

“Any politician who pleads with constituents to get vaccinated risks further polarizing people on this issue,” Hamblin said, adding that the message should be driven by medical experts.

President Biden addressed the nation on Dec. 21, urging Americans to take precautions to fend off the fast-spreading omicron variant. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Also Tuesday, Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, warned nursing home providers that their residents remain disproportionately vulnerable to omicron given their age and comorbidities, and that earlier vaccine protection may have waned.

“Getting the boosters must happen in the next couple weeks,” Levine said on a conference call. “We really have one, two, three weeks until everywhere, the surge is here, and hospitals are potentially overwhelmed.”

Many nursing home providers are racing to administer boosters amid evidence of rising infections in their facilities.

Biden’s speech came three weeks after he unveiled his initial plan to combat a winter surge, which included campaigns to increase vaccinations and booster shots, more stringent testing for international travelers, and plans to make rapid at-home coronavirus testing free for more people. But with the emergence of the new variant, the White House moved to add measures to protect Americans.

On Tuesday, Biden signaled his administration was considering reversing one such measure: the bans restricting travel to the U.S. from several countries that had large covid outbreaks driven by the omicron variant.

“Look, remember why I said we put a travel ban on is to see how much time we had before it hit here so we can begin to decide what we needed by looking at what’s happening in other countries,” Biden said. “But we’re past that now. And so it’s something that is being raised with me by the docs. And now I’ll have an answer.”

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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