President Biden will convene his COVID-19 pandemic team Tuesday to discuss the fast-spreading Omicron variant — without yet setting a date to launch his plan to mass-mail 500 million at-home rapid tests.
The White House put a positive spin on record-high coronavirus infections ahead of the 2 p.m. meeting. Biden will “hear about the latest data on the Omicron variant, including that while cases continue to increase, fully vaccinated and boosted Americans that get infected are not likely to have severe symptoms,” a White House official said.
Federal statistics on new COVID-19 cases haven’t been updated since last week due to the New Year’s holiday. The most recent date for which the CDC published data — Dec. 29 — had a record-smashing 486,428 new diagnosed cases.
The true rate of infection is believed to be much higher due to substantial numbers of people who are asymptomatic or who don’t report the results of at-home tests.
The Omicron variant has evaded vaccines to a greater extent than past mutations and even people who received a third “booster” shot have fallen ill — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
However, preliminary data indicate Omicron symptoms may be less severe, and thus far deaths have not surged alongside new infections, though hospitalization rates are up sharply in New York and some other areas of the country.
Major urban areas have been especially hard-hit by Omicron. As of last week, one in 50 Manhattan and DC residents had tested positive in the preceding week.
Retailers such as CVS Pharmacy have sold out of test kits at some locations and massive lines have formed at official test sites, forcing FEMA to open federally run testing sites in hard-hit areas.
The White House reportedly rejected an expert plan in October to mass-distribute at-home rapid tests ahead of a possible holiday surge in COVID-19 cases. But Biden belatedly embraced the idea late last month as cases increased.
The delay in setting up the distribution system for rapid tests means they may not come in time to battle Omicron.
White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday that the program’s first contracts won’t be signed until late this week.
It’s still unclear when a government website will be launched for people to request the rapid tests, how many test kits households will be able to request or when they will be mailed.
Experts from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative and other groups pitched a 10-page plan to White House officials on Oct. 22 that called for the production of 732 million tests per month for a “Testing Surge To Prevent [a] Holiday COVID surge,” Vanity Fair reported.
The plan called for “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.”
Biden denied spiking the idea. “We didn’t reject it,” Biden told The Post on the White House lawn last week as he departed for Delaware.
A White House spokesman split hairs over the definition of the word “reject” — arguing that although the idea was not implemented before the holidays as proposed, it wasn’t rejected because it is being acted upon months later.
“The characterization of ‘rejection’ is not an accurate reflection of a productive meeting, and in fact, we are implementing many measures that were discussed as capacity now allows us to do,” the spokesman said.