As the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, U.S. President Joe Biden is planning to announce 500 million free rapid tests for Americans, along with federal help for stressed hospitals, and a renewed push for vaccinations and booster shots.
In a speech scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday (streamed live on MarketWatch), Biden will highlight intensified efforts to contain omicron, which scientists are still working to understand. The variant, first brought to attention by doctors in South Africa, is highly transmissible and reduces the efficacy of existing vaccines, but for now it’s not clear whether it is more deadly, or less, than other variants.
It has, however, become the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for 73% of new cases last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden is expected to re-emphasize that unvaccinated people are putting themselves at risk of preventable death. Early data show that two vaccine doses and a booster offer the best protection against omicron. While breakthrough cases are possible and are happening, those patients are not presenting severe symptoms and generally do not require hospitalization. Omicron also causes a far higher rate of reinfection in people who have already had COVID, the data shows.
There are 40 million eligible but unvaccinated American adults, the Associated Press reported. Efforts to increase vaccination rates have struggled to overcome a series of political, social and cultural divides. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday briefing that the president plans to appeal to survival instincts.
“Our health experts assess that you are 14 times more likely to die of COVID if you have not been vaccinated versus vaccinated,” she said.
The U.S. is still averaging about 1,300 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and more than 143,000 new cases a day, up 20% from two weeks ago.
Cases are rising especially fast in the Northeast, with new cases in New York up more than 80% in the past two weeks. New York City recorded about 42,600 positive cases from Wednesday through Saturday, compared with fewer than 35,800 in the entire month of November.
The city has never had so many people test positive in such a short period since testing became widely available, although there is no clear picture, due to a shortage of tests at the time, of how many people got the virus during the city’s first surge in the spring of 2020.
The CDC’s vaccine tracker, meanwhile, is showing that of the 204 million people living in the U.S. that are fully vaccinated, just 60.8 million have received a booster dose.
Underscoring the risk posed by omicron, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people not to gather in large numbers over the coming holiday period. “An event canceled is better than a life canceled. It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later, than to celebrate now and grieve later,” Tedros said at a Monday news briefing.
He noted that more than 3.3 million people have lost their lives to COVID in 2021, more than from HIV, Malaria and TV combined in 2020.
“If we are to end the pandemic in the coming year, we must end inequity, by ensuring 70% of the population of every country is vaccinated by the middle of next year,” he said.
Elsewhere, Israel has added the U.S. to its no-fly list because of worry about omicron, Reuters reported. The move goes into effect at 2200 GMT on Tuesday, and Israelis would need special permission to fly to the U.S., which is now one of more than 50 countries to which its citizens cannot travel.
Thailand has stopped quarantine-free visits to the country because of omicron, Nikkei Asia reported. Travelers will be required to quarantine in a hotel for seven to 10 days.
In China, the city of Xi’an is testing millions of residents after detecting more than 40 new cases of the coronavirus, AFP reported. Xi’an — a historic northwestern city of around 13 million people — recorded 42 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number detected since Dec. 9 to 91, according to figures from the provincial health commission.
Sweden is imposing tighter restrictions on movement and asking workers to work from home if possible, the Guardian reported. “We must now take joint responsibility, and we need to adapt to the new reality,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference.
The CEO of Moderna MRNA, -3.54% told a Swiss newspaper that he does not anticipate any problems in developing a booster shot specifically targeting omicron. Stephane Bancel told TagesAnzeiger that it would take a week or two for work to start and a few months to produce 500 million doses, assuming regulators authorize such a booster.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 275.6 million on Tuesday, while the death toll edged above 5.36 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. continues to lead the world with 51.1 million cases and 807,974 deaths.
India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.8 million and has suffered 478,007 deaths. Brazil has the second highest death toll at 617,873 and 22.2 million cases.
In Europe, Russia has recorded the most fatalities at 293,329 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 147,723.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 113,087 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.