Biden preaches concern, not panic on omicron

President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion The Fed has a clear mandate to mitigate climate risks Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE on Tuesday sought to strike a balance between reassuring Americans about the coming wave of omicron infections, but also to once again try to persuade the public to take precautions.

During remarks at the White House, Biden outlined a plan to increase testing, speed up the vaccination campaign and boost the capacity of hospitals that could be inundated in the coming weeks. He made it clear that although infections are rising, the nation is in a far different place than it was last year.

“We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panicked,” Biden said, emphasizing that vaccinated individuals, especially those with a booster shot, are “highly protected” against the virus. 

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Biden announced that the U.S. will stand up new federal testing sites around the country, helping states that need additional testing capacity. The first will be set up in New York City this week.

He also announced that the administration plans to purchase 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests to distribute for free to any American who wants one. But the tests won't even start becoming available until January, and administration officials said they're still working out details, including finalizing the design of the website where the tests can be ordered. 

Rapid tests are in short supply right now amid the demand surge, and the administration has been criticized for not doing enough to provide more low-cost or even free tests. At the same time, turnaround times for lab-based tests are growing and people are waiting hours in long lines for testing centers. 

Still, Biden repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. was in a different position than March 2020, largely because of the wide availability of coronavirus vaccines. There are over 200 million Americans who are fully vaccinated. 

“We're prepared. We know more. We just have to stay focused," Biden said.

Yet nearly 70 percent of fully vaccinated Americans have yet to receive their booster shot. Some experts have attributed that to unclear messages from top health officials during the rollout.

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Biden's speech comes at a fraught time, as the omicron variant is spreading rapidly and many public health experts warn infection is almost an inevitability. The U.S. is averaging more than 149,000 new cases every day, which is about double the amount from just a month ago.

Biden faces an uphill task; the public has grown weary of both the pandemic and mixed messages from health officials. His poll numbers have remained low since this summer, and negotiations around his signature domestic policy legislation collapsed last weekend.

"I know you're tired, and I know you're frustrated. We all want this to be over, but we are still in it," Biden said. 

The omicron variant now makes up about three-quarters of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That spike is a significant increase from just 12.6 percent of cases one week earlier.

Biden said that Americans who have been vaccinated and boosted will be largely protected from severe illness from the omicron variant. But he also acknowledged that many will still get infected with relatively mild symptoms, and people should expect cases to rise.

"We'll see some vaccinated people get COVID, potentially large numbers," Biden said.

He acknowledged there would be positive cases among vaccinated staffers in the White House, where an aide who came into contact with Biden last week recently tested positive. 

Biden struck a dire warning for those who choose to remain unvaccinated, who he said were at risk for hospitalization or death due to serious illness from COVID-19. 

"Omicron is serious, potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people," Biden said. "If you're not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned. You're at a high risk of getting sick. And if you get sick, you're likely to spread it to others, including friends and family, and the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in hospital or even dying."