COVID is on the rise again in the United States in a big way, with the CDC estimating that the omicron variant is now responsible for 73 percent of new cases. Omicron might cause less severe illness than previous variants, or it might not; what’s clear is that it spreads more quickly than the others, and that individuals who’ve only gotten the initial doses of a vaccine, and not a booster, are highly susceptible to infection from it.
Reports across the country indicate that PCR testing centers are overloaded and at-home testing kits are hard to come by. Meanwhile, something like 20 percent of eligible individuals in the United States—meaning, of the set of Americans who are 5 years old or older—haven’t received even one vaccine dose. The situation, then, is one in which a faster-spreading COVID is moving through a population that is having a harder than usual time testing itself to determine whether it needs to quarantine. And this is happening during the holidays, when people tend to gather indoors in large groups. This is going to mean, scientifically speaking, a mondo load of cases, including potentially enough serious ones to fill hospital ICUs.
In recent weeks, a number of public-health experts and journalists have expressed concern about the government’s level of preparedness for the surge. (On Dec. 8, White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to a question in this vein, about the availability of testing, by riffing facetiously about how crazy it would be to imagine that a free test could be sent to everyone in the country.) Cultural events have been canceled; some day cares are closing. Parents have started to think darkly about the renewed possibility of life-upending K–12 school closures.
On Tuesday at the White House, President Joe Biden announced a plan for responding to omicron. It was headlined by a reversal of course: The administration, he now says, is committed to sending free tests to everyone in the country who wants one. (According to the White House, the plan is to purchase 500 million tests and create a website where Americans can order them for free. As the New York Times noted judiciously, “it was not immediately clear where the tests would come from.” The U.K., which already had such a home-delivery system in place, recently ran out of tests.) Biden also says that the federal government, via the military and FEMA, will deploy additional resources and manpower for testing and vaccination and to hospitals.
The most practically and politically salient part of the president’s speech, however, may have concerned something he has no formal control over: public schools. “We don’t have to shut down schools because of COVID-19,” Biden said, arguing that testing and vaccine technology can isolate and mitigate outbreaks in a way that was not possible when districts shut down in March 2020. “We can keep our K–12 schools open. That’s exactly what we should be doing.”
Biden’s remarks included several passages intended to persuade vaccine-hesitant Americans to get shots, including both warnings that they are at elevated risk of dying and an aside about former President Donald Trump having recently said that he has received a vaccine booster. Given the general political leanings of the unvaccinated population, odds are not great that this will have any effect, Trump’s personal decision notwithstanding. Teachers unions and state governments—or at least state governments in states that would be considering further closures in the first place—may be more easily influenced by the soft power of the presidential pulpit.
Step 1 for the president was having a press conference and a plan ; mission accomplished there. Step 2 is getting at-home tests out, setting up new testing sites, and bolstering America’s hospitals before omicron lands fully. How all of that works out will be what actually determines whether the country experiences the social chaos (and political fallout) that Biden seems, a bit belatedly, motivated to avert.