White House reporters peppered President Biden with questions about COVID-19 on Thursday after he announced a new push for people to wear face masks nearly two years into the pandemic — but Biden chose not to answer any of them.
In scripted remarks from the White House-adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the president — who spoke with his back to the press pool — announced a plan to distribute free high-quality masks, the wearing of which he said would be a “patriotic duty” for Americans in response to record-high numbers of COVID cases caused by the Omicron variant.
“Mr. President, do you have a message for vaccinated Americans who are wondering why they should continue to restrict their activities given your health officials say most Americans will get COVID at some point?” a reporter asked while being hustled out of the room.
“Folks, we’ll talk about that later,” Biden replied. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Why should Americans trust your administration to beat COVID when the virus is still here, sir?” a second reporter asked, alluding to Biden’s 2020 campaign pledge to “shut down the virus.”
A third reporter shouted, “Mr. President, do you believe Omicron is the beginning of the end of this pandemic?”
“How much longer do you think the schools will have to wear masks, sir?” the second reporter added.
A fourth reporter noted that her colleagues were getting nowhere and told Biden, “Maybe a press conference soon, Mr. President? We’d look forward to that.”
Biden smiled and said, “Me too,” despite the fact that he has given just one solo press conference in his first year in office.
More than 1.35 million US residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, according to CDC data — a more than fourfold increase over last winter’s peak of 294,000 cases reached on Jan. 8, 2021. The true case load is believed to be much higher because many people are asymptomatic or don’t report the results of at-home tests.
While studies indicate the new Omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than prior strains of COVID-19, it has caused hospitalization spikes across the country. More than 141,000 US hospital patients had COVID-19 as of Monday — beating to the prior record of 133,000 last January.
In his prepared remarks, Biden promised that “next week we will announce … how we are making high-quality masks available to the American people for free. I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it.”
“Please, please wear the mask,” Biden added. “As I’ve said in the last two years, please wear a mask. I think it’s part of your patriotic duty. It’s not that comfortable. It’s a pain in the neck.”
The CDC said in May that vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks indoors, but later backtracked due to the more contagious Delta and Omicron variants.
The Omicron variant in particular has caused a massive wave of infections in vaccinated people, though symptoms generally are less severe. According to CDC data, 79.3 percent of all US residents ages 5 and old have had at least one vaccine shot. However, a Danish study published last month indicates that Omicron is between 2.7 and 3.7 times more infectious than Delta among vaccinated and boosted patients.
Biden also said his administration would launch a website next week for people to request free at-home rapid test kits — and said he was doubling the number of tests to be sent out from 500 million to 1 billion kits.
“We’re on track to roll out a website next week, where you can order free tests shipped to your home,” he said. “And in addition to the 500 million — half a billion — tests that are in the process of being acquired to ship to your home for free, today I’m directing my team to procure an additional half a billion — an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free.”
The White House reportedly rejected an expert plan in October that called for the production of 732 million tests per month for a “Testing Surge To Prevent [a] Holiday COVID surge” and for “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.”
Biden denied to The Post that his staff rejected the expert plan. He belatedly embraced the mass-distribution drive late last month as cases increased — but it’s unclear if those tests will reach homes in time to counter the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday at a Senate hearing that the Biden administration had contracted for just 50 million test kits so far out of the initially announced 500 million.
Retailers such as CVS Pharmacy remain sold out of test kits at some locations and massive lines continue to be seen at official test sites, forcing FEMA to open federally run testing sites in hard-hit areas.
A previously announced Biden rule also takes effect this week requiring health insurance companies to reimburse policyholders for rapid tests that they buy themselves.
Biden faced the tough questions Thursday despite his staff continuing a murky practice of pre-screening journalists allowed within earshot of the president. The Post was among the outlets denied permission to attend and the criteria for selection to attend such events remains a mystery to reporters, who have been given a range of conflicting explanations. It’s widely believed to be a tactic to shape the questions that get asked.