WASHINGTON — “Folks, I know we’re all tired and frustrated about the pandemic,” President Biden said on Tuesday ahead of his meeting with his pandemic response team. It was not the message with which he’d hoped to open the new year, but with the nation recording more than a million coronavirus cases on Monday, there was little to do but acknowledge reality, which is that the virus Biden had promised to vanquish remains very much unvanquished.
“These coming weeks are going to be challenging,” the president said, himself sounding weary from months of battling crosscurrents of political resistance and medical misinformation, not to mention a virus that has proved intractable at every turn.
As he has in the past, Biden trained his frustrations on the millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that the vaccines are safe and effective. He bluntly charged the unvaccinated with “taking up hospital beds and crowding emergency rooms and intensive care units,” thus not only endangering themselves but also prolonging a pandemic that many had hoped would be over by now.
Although the highly transmissible Omicron variant does have some ability to break through vaccinations, it is unvaccinated people who are by far the most vulnerable to severe or critical cases of COVID-19. “If you’re unvaccinated, you have some reason to be alarmed. Many of you will experience severe illness,” the president said.
“Some will die — needlessly die,” he added moments later.
Biden did acknowledge that a booster shot is necessary to bolster the immunity accorded by vaccines. For Americans, that means a third shot of an mRNA vaccine like those offered by Pfizer or Moderna, or a second shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “We have booster shots for the whole nation. You can still get COVID, but it’s highly unlikely — very unlikely — that you’ll become seriously ill,” the president said.
The Biden administration has been trying to shift focus away from infection rates to hospitalizations, since many vaccinated people may test positive for the coronavirus but experience either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The Omicron variant has generally led to less severe symptoms, particularly for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and received a subsequent booster shot.
“It is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, said on Sunday.
Biden also announced on Tuesday that his administration would buy 10 million more doses of a new Pfizer treatment, administered in pill form, that is highly effective against preventing the most severe effects of COVID-19, death in particular. And he looked forward to imminent approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of booster shots for adolescents, though not yet for children under 12. Children under 5 remain ineligible for vaccination.
Touching on another issue that has resurfaced in recent weeks, Biden reiterated that “schools can and should be open this winter.” More than 2,000 schools across the country are closed this week because of high numbers of positive cases among teachers and students.
He also vowed that the scarcity of diagnostic testing would soon be alleviated, though that is unlikely to happen in time to blunt the Omicron surge.
“There’s a lot of reason to be hopeful in 2020,” Biden said at the conclusion of his remarks, which took place on the fourth day of 2022.