(The Hill) – President Biden laid out a plan Tuesday, December 21 to tackle the new threat of increasing COVID-19 cases across the U.S. that is largely due to omicron quickly becoming the dominant variant.
The new initiative focuses on sending millions of rapid at-home tests to Americans, bolstering support for hospitals facing intense pressure and getting more people their booster shots. But it leaves out the business closures and stay-at-home orders that marked the early days of the pandemic.
Here are five things to know about Biden’s latest pandemic plan.
Lockdowns avoided, largely credited to vaccines
Biden did not call for business closures or restrictions, and he emphasized the progress that has been made since the start of the pandemic, most prominently the availability of vaccines.
“This is not March of 2020,” Biden said. “We’re prepared; we know more.”
Vaccinated people, especially those who have their booster shots, are well protected against severe disease from the variant, though there will be more mild breakthrough infections. Biden continued his focus on urging more people to get vaccinated and boosted as the best protection against the infectious disease.
After almost two years of battling the pandemic, the public appetite for shutdowns is sapped, and several experts said such measures are not warranted.
“It is not reasonable to ask vaccinated people to stay home again,” said Leana Wen, a public health expert at George Washington University.
Testing is expanding, but there’s room for more
As the highly transmissible variant spreads, long lines for testing and sold-out pharmacies have also proliferated around the country.
Seeking to remedy that, Biden announced on Tuesday that his administration will be buying 500 million rapid tests that people can have mailed to their homes by ordering them on a website.
Experts praised that move as a step in the right direction but said much more needs to be done. They cited the tests not being available until January, well after people across the country travel and gather for the holidays, as well as the need for far more tests if people are going to use them before going to dinner or gathering with friends.
“Five hundred million sounds like a large number,” Wen said but argued it is a “drop in the bucket” of the real need, noting the U.S. population of 330 million.
Experts said the administration should be doing more to ramp up production of the tests and that more could have been done months ago.
Earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the need to send out free rapid tests, asking a reporter sarcastically, “Should we just send one to every American?”
“Clearly they’re responding to the criticisms they got,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “They’re basically doing what the press secretary kind of flippantly asserted was not possible.”
Psaki said Tuesday that actions on testing have been a “building process” over the months and noted that even with the new announcement, people would have to request the tests on a website to avoid the “waste” of sending tests to homes that might not want or use them.
Hospitals getting help to face a major surge
While the reduced risk of severe illness for vaccinated people can be reassuring, there is a separate concern about the health care system being overwhelmed, largely fueled by the unvaccinated.
Even before the omicron variant wave, many hospitals were stretched to the breaking point by the delta variant wave.
For example, Minnesota hospital leaders last week took out a full-page ad in newspapers across the state warning they were “overwhelmed” and calling for people to get vaccinated and boosted and to wear masks.
Biden announced Tuesday he is mobilizing 1,000 military health personnel if hospitals need them as well as resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with staffing and adding beds.
There are more steps Biden could take
Some experts said Biden is not using all of the arrows in his quiver.
In addition to making far more rapid tests available, some experts said the administration could make vaccination required for domestic air travel as an additional push to get people inoculated. Some Democratic lawmakers called for that step this week as well.
Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, also wrote that the administration could distribute high-quality KN95 masks to Americans, and take steps to ramp up production of a promising new pill to treat COVID-19 from Pfizer, which is expected to be in short supply to start.
“Our Administration continues to take a reactive stance, seemingly incapable of aggressive, bold initiatives that are under their control,” he wrote.
Wen said the administration could also encourage vaccination requirements for dining indoors or attending concerts or gyms, the way some major cities have already done.
Booster shots are key, and the unvaccinated are at by far the greatest risk
Biden continued to urge Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, pleas that have been at the center of his response to the new variant.
“Vaccinated people who get COVID may get ill but they’re protected from severe illness and death,” Biden said.
“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” he added.
Early data from the United Kingdom this month found that people with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine had only about 30 percent protection against omicron, but that rose to about 75 percent after a third dose.
And even two doses could still provide protection against severe disease.
As of October, unvaccinated people were 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
FEMA is setting up new pop-up vaccination clinics to get more people the shots, Biden announced.
The president sought to reassure people who are vaccinated that they are protected from the worst outcomes even with omicron.
“Over 200 million Americans should have peace of mind they did not have in March of 2020,” he said.