Omicron surge renews concerns over boosters and testing

President Biden’s promise to end the pandemic is being tested by the Omicron variant, which is spreading rapidly through the country.

President Biden’s promise to end the pandemic is facing perhaps its greatest test with the Omicron variant, which has spread with lightning speed and has cast a shadow over Americans’ holiday plans.

As public health officials warn that the United States could soon see a record number of new cases, Biden is slated to outline his administration’s response in a speech from the White House on Tuesday.

Although there are hopes that widespread vaccinations will make the coming wave less deadly than previous ones, surging caseloads could still overwhelm hospitals and demoralize a country that had hoped the crisis would be over by now. Omicron is so contagious that it’s expected to cause more breakthrough infections. On Monday, federal health officials said the variant has surpassed the Delta variant as the nation’s dominant strain, accounting for 73 percent of new cases.

The president is also facing sharper criticism and has seen his poll numbers drop, a sharp reversal from the widespread support he received for his handling of the pandemic earlier in the year. Experts question why the administration has failed to make rapid testing cheaper or more widely available. And they blame mixed messages about booster shots for the low number of Americans who have received an extra dose. Boosters are considered critical for protecting against Omicron.

Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said administration officials originally made boosters “sound like a nice-to-have luxury instead of essential, which is what they actually are.”

“The Biden administration has done a good job of clarifying it, but a lot of the damage has already been done,” she said. Although an estimated 1 million booster doses are being administered each day, less than a third of vaccinated Americans have received one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wen said the administration should shift its characterization of boosters to indicate that they’re an integral part of becoming fully vaccinated.

Asked on Monday whether the administration regretted its original guidance on boosters, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki deflected the question.

“That was a decision made by our health and medical experts,” she said.

Lindsey Dawson, associate director of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the U.S. is “playing catch up” on testing, unlike European countries that invested early in making tests widely available for free.

She said shifting strategies from administration officials has hampered testing. Earlier this year, Dawson said, the administration suggested that vaccinated people didn’t need to be tested, even if they came in close contact with people sick with COVID-19.

That decision led manufacturers “to pull back production, or certainly weren’t willing to scale up production when they didn’t think there was a market there,” she said.

The result, Dawson added, is that the nation is experiencing a shortage of tests as vaccinated people increasingly seek to learn if they have caught a breakthrough infection and might be a risk to spreading the disease to others.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical advisor, said Monday that more progress on testing is needed.

“It’s spotty. In some places you can easily get a test and in other places you can’t,” Fauci said during an event at the National Press Club in Washington.

Though Fauci said the country was in “infinitely” better shape than it was a year ago, he said the coronavirus would ultimately need to be managed rather than defeated outright.

“We’re never going to eradicate this,” he said. “Elimination may be too aspirational.”

Biden recently announced that his administration would allow people to get reimbursed by health insurance companies for the purchase of at-home tests, but the rule isn’t expected to take effect until next month.

Another 50 million home tests are slated for distribution to community health centers and rural clinics, where they’ll be available for free.

It’s unclear what further steps Biden will announce on Tuesday. He opposes closing schools, and he’s previously insisted the country could get through the winter without another round of lockdowns. His administration has declined to impose vaccination or testing requirements for domestic air travel.

His vaccination campaign has already been pushed to its limits. A requirement for employees at large companies to get vaccinated or face regular testing is the subject of a convoluted court battle. Biden continues struggling to convince holdouts to get their shots even though the country’s death toll has exceeded 800,000 people.

Psaki did not provide specifics on what Biden would announce, but she did say the president’s speech will not “be about locking the country down.”

Asked if Biden still believes it’s possible to end the pandemic, Psaki said, “His objective is to continue to make vaccines available, reduce hospitalizations and deaths around the country.”

Even though the administration insists the country is better prepared for the winter surge, the Omicron variant has unmistakably rattled Washington.

Blocks from the White House, the line of people waiting to get tested for the coronavirus wrapped around a downtown square. Washington’s mayor reinstated an indoor mask mandate less than one month after lifting it.

A string of politicians, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have tested positive despite receiving vaccines and boosters, reporting they are suffering only minor symptoms. The positive tests are a reminder that even vaccinated people can become infected with the coronavirus and get sick from it, though experts say inoculation greatly lowers the risk of hospitalization or death.

An estimated 65% of Americans at least 5 years old are considered fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine or two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

Only 30% of people who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose. Among people who are at least 65 years old — those considered to be among the most vulnerable to the virus because of their age — the number stands at 54%.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.