President Biden on Tuesday sought to tamp down worries about the omicron coronavirus variant, underscoring that COVID-19 vaccines protect against severe illness from the virus.
Speaking before a briefing with his COVID-19 advisers at the White House, Biden said that the U.S. has the tools to protect Americans from severe illness from the virus. He also advocated to keep schools open at a time when cases are rising and some school districts are opting to start the year remote once again.
“Folks, I know we’re all tired and frustrated about the pandemic. These coming weeks are going to be challenging. Please wear your mask in public to protect yourself and others. We’re going to get through this,” Biden said. “We have the tools to protect people from severe illness due to omicron if people choose to use the tools.”
The U.S. reported over one million COVID-19 cases on Monday, driven up in part by backlogs over the New Year’s holiday. The U.S. is now averaging over 480,000 daily COVID-19 infections.
Hospitals in some states have been overwhelmed, forcing the federal government to send personnel to help with the surge in cases.
Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, citing projections that COVID-19 hospitalizations could exceed 5,000.
There is some promising news when it comes to the protection that COVID-19 vaccines offer against omicron, however. Thus far, data has shown that vaccines and booster doses protect against severe disease from the omicron variant.
That’s why Biden and government health experts are urging Americans who have not done so to get vaccinated, and those who are eligible for booster doses to get them as soon as possible. Currently, about 66 percent of eligible adult Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and roughly one third have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If you are vaccinated and boosted you are highly protected,” Biden said Tuesday, noting that those who are vaccinated can still contract COVID-19 but are unlikely to become seriously ill.
“Be concerned about omicron but don’t be alarmed, but if you’re unvaccinated you have some reason to be alarmed,” he said.
Biden also announced plans to double the federal government’s purchases of Pfizer’s COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid to 20 million courses, but he cautioned that it would take months for the pills to be produced and available.
Biden has faced criticism in recent weeks as the nation has grappled with shortages of at-home testing kits and a surge in demand for tests ahead of the Christmas holiday. On Tuesday, the president expressed frustration with the testing situation but insisted it was improving, pointing to his administration’s plan to send 500 million tests to Americans free of costs beginning this month.
“I know this remains frustrating – it remains frustrating to me – but we’re making improvements,” Biden said.
Biden also twice underscored his desire to keep schools open, noting funding allotted for schools in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed last year. His message has been consistent that school closures and other shutdowns are not necessary to address the current wave of cases.
Despite Biden’s position, some schools have temporarily reverted to virtual learning due to the omicron wave.
Biden enjoyed high marks for his handling of the coronavirus at the start of his presidency but polls have shown that support waning in recent months as the U.S. has grappled with the more contagious delta and omicron variants.
A CNBC/Change Research poll released this week that was conducted in December found that 45 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus while 55 percent disapprove.