Inside Biden White House’s thorny response to the Omicron variant


“If you have to do it, you have to do it,” Biden told advisers privately as they discussed the implementation of the restrictions, which officials say are not permanent and can be adjusted as we learn more.

Officials were still discussing some of those next steps on Tuesday evening, when representatives from several agencies met to assess a tightening of new testing rules for inbound international travelers, including those who are vaccinated. They ultimately decided to shorten the window for passengers to get tested before their flights to the United States. The ordinance was still under regulatory review on Wednesday and it is not known when it will be implemented.

Aiming to navigate the complicated terrain of tackling a strain that little is known about, Biden will conduct the 10-minute helicopter flight to NIH to lay out what he says is a robust strategy to tackle the spread of Covid this winter without instituting any new lockdowns or shutdowns – politically toxic measures he hopes to avoid even as his administration struggles to prevent another major surge.

“We will fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said Wednesday before his remarks.

On Biden’s last visit to the NIH labs three weeks after taking office, his guide gave him good news: The newly licensed Covid-19 vaccines should work against the coronavirus variants.

“It may eventually lose its effectiveness, but I think it’s fine for now – until more mutations are built up,” Dr. Barney Graham, head of the laboratory and deputy director of the laboratory, told Biden. NIH Vaccine Research Center. images of a red dot virus on his computer screen.

Nine months later, Biden returns to the agency’s campus with the new variant – one with around 50 mutations – causing further uncertainty about the future of a pandemic the president once hoped to be in its final stages.

“The aim is to present their plan for winter to ensure that we take all possible measures to protect ourselves against Delta, Omicron and any variant we may face,” said a senior official at the ‘administration.

Biden will present the strategy without having many concrete details about Omicron itself, which government scientists say could take weeks to fully understand. The plan he and his team have rolled out so far includes a new push for vaccinations and a new urgency in promoting booster shots, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially urged for all adults. starting this week.

Learn from Delta

Aides says they are applying some of the lessons learned from a fragile initial response to the Delta variant this summer, such as acknowledging the litany of unknowns about the new strain, while also making the plan of action to combat it explicit.

Delta moved to the United States and caused a return to mask wearing rules and other restrictions after Biden sought to signal the pandemic was drawing to a close – a change that corresponded to a drop in odds approval of the president. Privately, many of Biden’s allies have complained about the White House’s early handling of Delta, including the president’s message as the variant spread.

“Sure, they can use the lessons learned and improve the messaging around the virus,” a Democratic strategist told CNN. “But what they desperately need is a break from the need to communicate about the virus, which has proven difficult to find or control.”

This time around, administration officials had been bracing for almost the time news of the Omicron variant emerged for detection in the United States, knowing that the restrictions and rules were limited in their effectiveness. The inevitability occurred on Wednesday when the CDC announced that an individual who had recently traveled from South Africa had been infected with the Omicron variant.

Biden’s top advisers determined over the Thanksgiving long weekend that acknowledging the uncertainty, while preparing the country for Omicron’s potential arrival, was the best solution. Senior health officials have held “non-stop” meetings and calls since being alerted to major concerns about the variant, an administration official said.

The Omicron variant gave “a greater sense of urgency around our earlier sense of urgency,” a senior official said.

Officials also pointed to clearer recall guidelines as a welcome boon to their messaging efforts.

This week, Biden made his clearest appeal yet: If you’ve been fully vaccinated since June 1, it’s time for another dose. There had been deep frustration within the administration over the complicated messaging surrounding the booster injections, with several officials conceding to CNN that the initial restrictions on who should get one and when only created confusion at the time. a time when it was clear that immunity was waning for all age groups. Now the CDC is urging all American adults to get boosters.

“The reminder message was terrible,” Dr Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and professor of molecular medicine, told CNN. “It was obvious a few weeks ago that everyone needed a boost.”

It remains to be seen whether the US government will change its definition of fully immunized.

Although some have argued for it to be replaced with three strokes, as other countries have done, the administration is currently not considering doing so, two officials say, in part for fear it could disrupt the authorities. Ongoing court battles over Biden’s vaccine warrants.

Biden wants to project optimism but Omicron looms

As Americans enter the holiday season, Biden is eager to promote his advances against the virus and demonstrate a more normal holiday season than last year.

This makes the new variant an undesirable development for a president whose success will ultimately be determined by his ability to contain the pandemic. His advisers cited the defeat of Covid as the number one way to restore its weakened political position and resolve remaining economic issues, like inflation.

“I think they felt an urgent need to resolve this issue both in order to calm people down and to make people feel he was in the know,” said David Axelrod, senior advisor at the House. White of President Barack Obama and CNN’s senior political commentator. . “If you look at the language he used about how he goes all out and they leave no stone unturned, etc., that was clearly a motivation.”

The Republican National Committee has already attacked Biden for “not stopping the virus as he promised,” and other Republicans have already started to criticize his response to the new variant – often in a misleading manner.

Highlighting the dangers to Biden, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Omicron variant threatened the U.S. economic recovery.

Even though the White House’s attention returned to Covid this week, Biden continued his planned trip to promote the new infrastructure law in Minnesota, which he says may ease the supply chain bottlenecks that make increase prices. He also met this week with CEOs from various industries to discuss the holiday shopping season.

The White House has said it doesn’t expect to rethink its travel plans or the list of upcoming parties in light of the new variant – at least as long as many of its properties remain unknown.

After learning of the new tension on Thanksgiving Day, officials stepped up the pace of meetings, phone calls and video conferences to align their science and messaging efforts within the narrow window that exists to control the fallout. But even among some White House aides, news of a potentially more virulent new strain has been greeted with weary patience.

“It’s a collective ‘ugh’,” said an official.

News of the new variant came over the holidays, when the White House and federal public health officials dispersed at family reunions across the country. Speaking to NBC’s Al Roker from a cream-colored living room in the beachfront mansion where he was staying in Nantucket, Biden announced the relative normality of this year’s vacation.

“After two years you’re back. America is back. There’s nothing we can’t get over, Al,” he said, looking at himself on a flat screen TV.

The next morning he was briefed by phone for about 30 minutes by Dr Anthony Fauci and other variant officials and followed up on several phone calls with members of his Covid response team. As he strolled through the quaint shops of the island’s town center that afternoon, he recognized the uncertainty over the potential threat.

“We don’t know much about the variant except that it is of great concern; it seems to be spreading quickly,” he said on a rainy brick sidewalk.


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