After the Omicron variant began to spread across the United States just before the holidays, President Biden unleashed what he described as a major effort to bolster the country’s defenses.
Promised reinforcements for overwhelmed hospitals, more home testing for infections and new investments in access to vaccines.
But little seems to be slowing Omicron’s spread, despite Biden’s insistence that he is “sure we are on the right track” as the pandemic enters its third year. Although vaccines are preventing what could otherwise have been a devastating death toll, hospitals are being pushed to the limit. Meanwhile, Americans are frustrated with the confusing public health guidance, the scramble to find evidence, and renewed uncertainty about whether schools will keep their classrooms open.
Biden plans to update the country on his administration’s efforts on Thursday, a speech that comes as his administration faces mounting criticism from health experts and even some former advisers.
“The great tragedy here is that we got through last winter and even summer, and we never did the work to address the structural issues that are putting us back where we are now,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, dean. Academic at the Brown University School of Public Health. “Nothing that is happening today is unpredictable.”
Some of today’s challenges are rooted in decisions made months ago, said Dr. Rick Bright, a public health expert at the Rockefeller Foundation and a former member of Biden’s transition team. He said administration officials did not prepare for more contagious variants. when biden stated on July 4 the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
“They underestimated this virus,” Bright said.
Now, he said, “the administration is overwhelmed with this current increase.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the response to Omicron, noting this week that “we are in a different place than we were a year ago” due to the widespread distribution of vaccines. He also said the administration has spent months pushing for increased manufacturing of test kits.
However, some new trial initiatives are only available online now. On Saturday, Americans with private health insurance can begin receiving reimbursement for the cost of eight coronavirus home tests per month. The administration also secured 50 million tests that can be requested for free through a government website by the end of January. Another 450 million tests are expected to be available in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, the White House announced that millions more tests would be provided to schools to help screen students and staff for infections, as part of a new “test-to-stay” strategy that aims to maintain the open classrooms.
The Omicron variant is the newest and most contagious strain of the coronavirus to emerge since the pandemic began. Not only is it more communicable than the Delta variant, which traversed the country last year, but it is also more likely to cause advanced infections among vaccinated people.
The result is a disorienting and unsettling moment even as vaccines continue to offer protection against serious illness and death, especially when a booster shot is added.
“It is difficult to process what is really happening right now, which is that most people will get COVID,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, during a Senate hearing on Tuesday. .
Senators on both sides of the aisle were irritated by the hearing, which was attended by the administration’s top health officials.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) Complained about intricate rules about when people should isolate themselves after infections and said the administration’s efforts have fallen short.
“It frustrates me that we are still behind on issues that are as important to families as testing and supporting schools,” he said. “That is not to say that we have not progressed, it is just clear that we have not done enough.”
Senator Richard Burr (RN.C.) said the administration has lost the trust of the American people, adding that “I am at the end of my rope.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told senators that “we are doing the best we can” against what he described as “a very cunning virus.”
As Biden grapples with the Omicron variant, he faces constant political hurdles.
Some Americans, particularly conservatives, are unwilling to get vaccinated.
Twenty-seven Republican-led states argue that Biden exceeded his authority with a plan to require most American workers to be vaccinated or tested regularly. The issue is now in limbo awaiting a decision by the US Supreme Court, where conservatives have the majority.
Republican governors have also resisted more COVID-19 mandates, such as requiring the use of masks indoors.
But some of Biden’s allies have also urged the administration to correct course.
Former members of Biden’s transition team have written in medical journals that lawmakers must prepare for a “new normal,” moving from a state of emergency to improving public health infrastructure to help the country tackle the coronavirus as an ongoing threat.
Dr. Celine Gounder, infectious disease expert at New York University, co-author one of the articlesHe said the administration has focused on vaccines and neglected other strategies.
“Vaccines are No. 1, no. 2, no. 3 most important tools in the toolbox, “he said.” But they are not the only tool. “
The administration should have started to broaden its focus in the spring, when the degree of vacillation of the vaccine became apparent, he said. The original idea was “if we build it, they will come”, but large sectors of the country are still not willing to receive their vaccines. More than 25% of adults in the US they are not fully vaccinated.
For example, he said, the administration should do more to get Americans to update their skins because the cloth versions provide less protection against Omicron. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website still recommends tightly fitting cloth masks as a prevention method. But more people should use N95 or KN95, Gounder said.
“I don’t think that has been assimilated. People also assume that those masks will be uncomfortable, “he said. “Sometimes you just need to put it in front of someone.”
It’s unclear exactly how damaging the Omicron wave will end up being. There are indications that the variant is causing less serious illness, and the national count of hospitalizations for coronavirus includes a significant number of patients who test positive even though they were admitted for other reasons.
However, Gounder said, the variant could ultimately prove more damaging in the US than in South Africa, where it was first reported to exist, or the UK, which has suffered its own wave.
For example, South Africa has fewer seniors, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the variant appeared when the country was experiencing summer, making people less likely to shelter indoors during the weather. cold. And the UK has a more extensive public health system with paid leave benefits that can help people cope with the pandemic.
But in the US, the Omicron wave can only get worse. After spreading first in places like New York, it will eventually reach the least vaccinated areas of the country.
“The numbers don’t look good,” Gounder said.
Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine, said the number of cases has skyrocketed even faster than anticipated, but is hopeful the Omicron wave will peak soon.
“In other places that are ahead of the curve, they are finding what we would have expected, that this is going to be horrible and huge and it will peak fast and go down just as quickly,” he said.
For now, the rise in hospitalizations is putting a strain on medical staff. Many healthcare workers across the country left the field due to burnout, low wages, or a combination of both in the past year.
Ranney, the dean of Brown University, said Biden’s plan to deploy 1,000 military medics is “better than nothing, but not adequate,” adding that the administration should focus on recruiting and retaining medical personnel to combat effectively. effective this increase and the futures as well. Such an initiative could include risk payment bonuses or loan repayment incentives to support “the foundation of the system,” including nurses and physician assistants, Ranney said.
Dr. Jay Varma, professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, said he had been “very optimistic” early in the Biden administration because his approach to the pandemic “was a total reversal of what had happened. during the previous administration “.
“Unfortunately, it appears that much of that plan was not executed as vigorously as it seemed to have been planned at first,” he said. “So what we’re seeing right now is an attempt to catch up with that.”
Varma pointed to the national need for “cheap, abundant and high-quality home tests”, adding that it is “simply unacceptable for us not to have that kind of test available to everyone everywhere, regardless of ability to pay.”
Like Ranney, Varma pointed to the need for long-term solutions from the Biden administration.
“My real concern is not that what they promised at this point is not enough,” he said. “I want them to assure me that what they are doing now is simply a down payment on a much more vigorous investment in the plan they originally came up with when they took office.”