TUESDAY, Dec. 21, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- President Joe Biden laid out a comprehensive plan on Tuesday to help Americans navigate a tough winter facing the Omicron variant, but he also made an impassioned plea for every eligible person to get vaccines and boosters.
"For the folks who aren't vaccinated, you may think you're putting only yourself at risk, but your choice is not just a choice about you," Biden said during a speech from the White House. "It affects other people -- 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. The longer the virus is around, the more likely variants form that may be deadlier than the ones that have come before. Let me say again and again and again and again -- please get vaccinated."
When asked about the possibility of returning to lockdowns, Biden said, "Absolutely not. No," and proceeded to tick off several reasons why -- starting with the fact that there are now effective vaccines against COVID-19.
“Over 200 million Americans should have the peace of mind that they did not have in March 2020. They’re protected from hospitalization and they’re protected from death,” Biden said. “We are prepared today for what’s coming. In March of 2020, we were not ready. Today we’ve stockpiled enough gowns, masks and ventilators to deal with a surge of hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.”
And he reassured Americans that if they are fully vaccinated, boosted and following masking and testing guidelines, they can feel comfortable celebrating the holidays with their loved ones.
Included in the battle plan he announced Tuesday were measures to distribute 500 million free rapid COVID tests to the public, open new federal testing sites, send out hundreds more federal vaccinators, and provide 1,000 military medical personnel to bolster beleaguered hospitals.
The measures, many of which will not take place until January, were also outlined in a fact sheet from the White House.
Starting next month, "private insurance will also cover at-home testing, so you can order a test online and get reimbursed. We're providing access to free at-home tests for those who may not have insurance, as well," Biden said.
Wondering if there's a free testing site nearby? "We've arranged for it to be easier for you to find a free COVID testing site near you, on Google," Biden said. "Just enter 'covid test near me' in the Google search bar and you can find a number of different locations where you can get tested."
When asked why it has taken so long to ramp up production of COVID-19 at-home tests, Biden said, "The Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought. If I had told you four weeks ago that this would spread by a day-to-day basis, it would spread by 50%, 100%, 200%, 500%, I think you would have looked at me and said 'Biden, what are you drinking?'”
But one doctor noted the free tests coming in January may be too little, too late.
"The reality is that these tests will not be available until after the holidays," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "The lack of availability of rapid tests is more than concerning this far into the pandemic. Why we aren’t prepared with a surplus of rapid tests and scaled-up production weighs not only on the minds of healthcare professionals, but all people living in the U.S. trying to obtain access to such rapid tests. The cost of these tests thus far has been prohibitive [up to $23 for two tests], making them unobtainable for the majority of Americans."
"We have the perfect storm brewing, with a fragile health care system, winter now upon us, and the potential onslaught of hospitalizations looming two to three weeks after people gather for the holidays," Glatter added. "It doesn’t look pretty."
Just three short weeks ago, Biden announced a less ambitious winter pandemic strategy, pledging that 150 million Americans with private health insurance would soon be able to get reimbursed for at-home COVID tests. He also said there would be improved access to booster shots and announced new testing requirements for international travelers.
But since the first U.S. Omicron case was reported on Dec. 1, the highly contagious variant has swiftly become the dominant variant in the nation, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even if the Omicron variant ends up causing less severe disease, the explosion in cases means it is still possible that hospitals will become overwhelmed, experts have said.
“That’s the big concern,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told The New York Times. “If there are a lot of people getting sick, even if only a small portion of them are getting severely ill, that could still be a huge number of people.”
Another expert said that testing has become paramount.
“We have to acknowledge the reality that unfortunately, with a heavy heart, the virus is in charge and we need to take back control, and the only way to do that as a society is to test and isolate, test and isolate, repeat, repeat, repeat,” Mara Aspinall, an expert in medical diagnostics at Arizona State University, told the Times.
Biden was himself exposed to the coronavirus late last week but has since tested negative, White House officials said Monday, the Times reported.
In his speech on Tuesday, Biden also credited former President Donald Trump for getting a booster shot and sharing that information publicly.
“I got my booster shot as soon as they were available. 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,” Biden said.
However, he had harsh words for anyone trying to undermine vaccination efforts.
"The unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices, but those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media," Biden said. "You know these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters. It's wrong, it's immoral. I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it, stop it now."
Visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for more on COVID vaccines.
SOURCE: White House, fact sheet, Dec. 21, 2021; The New York Times