‘They underestimated this virus.’ Omicron cuts through U.S. defenses despite Biden’s efforts

WASHINGTON —

After the Omicron variant began spreading through the United States just before the holidays, President Biden unleashed what he described as a sweeping effort to bolster the country’s defenses.

He pledged reinforcements for overwhelmed hospitals, more home tests to screen for infections and new investments in vaccine access.

Despite Biden’s assurances that he is “confident” we are on the right path, Omicron’s spread seems to be continuing apace as it enters its third year. Hospitals are being stretched to the limit, even though vaccines are helping to prevent what could have been a terrible death toll. Americans are becoming frustrated by confusing public health guidance, difficulty finding tests, and uncertainty about whether schools will remain open.

Biden will give a national update on Thursday about his administration’s efforts. This comes amid growing criticism from former advisors and health experts. The big tragedy is that, despite having made it through the winter and summer, we didn’t do the work necessary to fix the structural problems that are putting our country back in this dire situation.” Dr. Megan Ranney from Brown University School of Public Health said. He said that officials failed to prepare for more contagious variants when Biden declared on the Fourth of July that the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” He said administration officials failed to prepare for more contagious variants when Biden declared on the Fourth of July that the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”

“They underestimated this virus,” Bright said. He said

Now that the administration was overwhelmed by this virus.

Bright stated that they underestimated it. She said that the administration spent months trying to increase production of test kits.

However, some new testing initiatives are only coming online now. Americans who have private insurance will be able to get reimbursements for eight home coronavirus testing per month starting Saturday. The administration has also secured 50 million tests that can be ordered for free through a government website by the end of January. Another 450 million tests are expected to be available in subsequent weeks. On Wednesday, the White House announced millions more tests will be made available to schools in order to screen staff and students for infection. This is part of a “test to stay”, a strategy to ensure that classrooms remain open.

The Omicron strain of coronavirus is the most contagious since the outbreak. It is more easily transmissible than Delta, and it is more likely to infect people who have been vaccinated. The result can be disorienting and disturbing, even though vaccines offer protection against serious illness and death.

Dr. Janet Woodcock wears a mask as she testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Dr. Janet Woodcock is the acting commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration. She testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

(Shawn Thew / Associated Press)

“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get COVID,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Senators from both sides of the aisle bristled with irritation at the hearing, which featured the administration’s top health officials.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) complained about the complicated rules regarding when people should isolate following infections and stated that the administration has failed to meet her expectations.

” I’m disappointed that we’re still behind in issues that are as crucial to families as testing schools and supporting schools,” she stated. “That’s not to say we have not made progress, it’s just clear we haven’t made enough.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said the administration has lost the trust of the American people, adding that “I’m at the end of my rope.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical advisor, told senators that “we’re doing the best we possibly can” against what he described as “a very wily virus.”

As Biden confronts the Omicron variant, he’s faced consistent political hurdles.

Some Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated, especially conservatives.

Twenty-seven Republican-led states are arguing that Biden overstepped his authority with a plan to require most American workers to become vaccinated or get regularly tested. As the U.S. Supreme Court decides, the issue is in flux.

Republican governors have also balked at further COVID-19 mandates, such as requiring masking indoors. But, some of Biden’s close aides have also asked the administration to correct its course.

Former members of Biden’s transition team have written in medical journals that policymakers need to prepare for a “new normal,” shifting from a state of emergency to improving the public health infrastructure to help the country cope with the coronavirus as a permanent threat.

Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert at New York University who co-authored one of the articles, said the administration has focused on vaccinations while neglecting other strategies.

“Vaccines are the No. 1, No. 2, No. She stated that these were the three most important tools in her toolbox. “But they’re not the only tool.”

The administration should have begun broadening its approach back in the spring, when the extent of vaccine hesitancy became apparent, she said. Although the original idea was that “if you build it, they’ll come”, large swathes of the country are still unwilling to receive their shots. More than 25% of adults in the U.S. are not fully vaccinated.

A teacher holds a sign outside her car window during a protest  for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols.

Elementary school teacher Carrie Landheer protests for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols outside Oakland Unified School District headquarters on Jan. 7.

(Noah Berger / Associated Press )

For example, she said, the administration should be working harder on getting Americans to upgrade their masks because cloth versions provide less protection against Omicron. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website still recommends well-fitting cloth masks as a prevention method. But more people should be wearing N95 or KN95s, Gounder said. I don’t believe that this has been ingrained. She said that people also assume that the masks will be uncomfortable. “Sometimes you just need to put it in front of someone.”

It’s unclear exactly how damaging the Omicron wave will end up being. There are some indications that the variant causes less severe illness. The nationwide count of coronavirus hospitalizations shows a large number of patients who have tested positive, even though they were admitted for another reason.

However, Gounder said, the variant could ultimately prove more harmful in the U.S. than in South Africa, where its existence was first reported, or the United Kingdom, which has suffered its own wave.

For example, South Africa has fewer senior citizens, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the variant struck when the country was experiencing its summer, so people were less likely to be hunkered down indoors during cold weather. The U.K. also has a better public healthcare system that includes paid leave benefits and can help with the pandemic.

But the Omicron wave could get worse in the U.S. It will spread first to New York and then eventually to other areas.

“The numbers don’t look good,” Gounder said.

Dr. Robert Wachter, Chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Medicine said that caseloads have exploded faster than expected, but he is optimistic that the Omicron wave can crest soon.

“In places that are ahead, they are discovering what we would hope, that this will just be just awfully and enormous, hit a rapid peak, and then come down just as fast,” he stated.

Currently, increasing hospitalizations are putting pressure on medical staff. In the past year, many healthcare workers have left the field because of burnout, low salaries or a combination thereof.

Ranney, the Brown University dean, said Biden’s plan to deploy 1,000 military medics is “better than nothing, but it’s not adequate,” adding that the administration must focus on recruiting and retaining medical staff to effectively combat this surge and any future ones too. Ranney suggested that such an initiative could include loan repayment incentives or hazard pay bonuses to help “the bedrock” of the system, which would include nurses and medical assistants.

Dr. Jay Varma, professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, said he had been “very optimistic” at the start of the Biden administration because its approach to the pandemic “was a complete reversal of what had happened during the previous administration.”

“Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of that plan was not executed as vigorously as it appeared to have been planned at the beginning,” he said. “And so what we’re seeing right now is an attempt to catch up on that.”

Varma pointed to a national need for “cheap, abundant, high-quality home tests,” adding that it is “simply unacceptable for us not to have that type of testing available to everybody everywhere, regardless of your ability to pay.”

Like Ranney, Varma pointed to a need for long-term solutions from the Biden administration.

” My real concern isn’t that they have not fulfilled their promises right now,” he stated. “I want to be reassured that what they’re doing now is simply a down payment on a much more vigorous investment in the plan that they originally laid out when they came into office.”

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