In his speech Tuesday about the new massive omicron COVID outbreak, President Joe Biden tried for a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging that this is not March 2020 and that "we’ll get through this."
It was also encouraging to hear that troops and medical personnel are being sent to overburdened hospitals, that FEMA surge facilities are being set up, and that protective gear is being sent to hard hit spots.
In the best move of the day, the president promised half a billion rapid tests for free (accessible via a federal website), a big step on the way toward providing rapid COVID tests to every home in America – which I and others have been calling for months. But we need even more, and sooner than January. We need them now.
Unfortunately, the president continued his divisive rhetoric of reassuring the vaccinated while issuing dire warnings to the unvaccinated. This approach hasn’t worked before, and it won’t work now.
It would be better if the president focused on the positive news that boosters still largely protect you from omicron, while finally acknowledging that recovery from previous infection provides useful immunity to keep omicron from being too severe. Dr. Wassila Jassat, head of the DATCOV hospital surveillance for COVID-19 at the National institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg, South Africa, told me on Doctor Radio on SiriusXM Tuesday that she believes it is this combination of immune factors that has slowed down the current outbreak in South Africa and helped keep it mostly mild.
Lacking in the president’s announcement were some practical steps – tools to calm our fears. Vaccines are still not available in most doctors' offices, where physicians could discuss the plusses and minuses with patients. The White House is still not extending the Operation Warp Speed approach to pre-purchasing of targeted boosters for emerging variants.
At the same time, as hysteria runs high, almost everyone who tests positive is looking for the Regeneron or Lilly monoclonal antibodies. But those are scarce and have limited effectiveness against the omicron variant. Whereas, GSK’s sotrovimab is effective against omicron and should be mass-produced. Yet the federal government has only purchased 50,000 doses. This effort needs to be ramped up immediately to millions.
And probably the greatest omission of all involves Pfizer’s new anti-viral drug, Paxlovid, which is effective against all the variants and can be combined with rapid testing to markedly decrease risk of hospitalization. Yet the drug remains stalled at the FDA, still awaiting Emergency Use Authorization. The government has pre-purchased 10 million treatment courses, but needs to buy 10 times this to make an immediate impact.
The president’s rhetoric still involves too much anger – pitting the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. Don’t get me wrong: the vaccines work, and everyone needs to take them.
But the politics of divisiveness and marginalization don’t work. People should take the vaccines and the boosters because they decrease the chance of severe disease and of spread – not because of politics or politicians.
We have the tools to exit the pandemic. We need much more of these tools, and we need them more quickly. It is the role and responsibility of the president to bring us the preventions, the treatments, and the cures.