White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly declined Monday to address Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s false claims about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 before calling for Chicago teachers to return to work after they caused classes to be canceled for a fourth day over record-high coronavirus cases.
Sotomayor claimed Friday during oral arguments over President Biden’s private sector vaccine mandate that the Omicron variant is so severe that “we have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition, many on ventilators.”
Official data indicate there are just 5,000 children in hospitals who have COVID-19.
“What do you guys think about COVID misinformation coming from the Supreme Court and Sonia Sotomayor’s false claim that over 100,000 children are in serious condition, many on ventilators?” Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy asked Psaki Monday.
“Well, I’m not going to speak to Supreme Court arguments or statements made in those arguments,” Psaki said.
“But I will tell you that what is at stake here is our effort to protect health workers and most importantly, protect patients, with the CMS rule [that requires most healthcare workers to be vaccinated] and also to make workplaces safer with the OSHA rule [the private sector mandate], which we have confidence in our legal argument for. So I will leave it to them to decide, but that’s what’s being argued now.”
Sotomayor mentioned the untrue child hospitalization data as justices weighed the legality of Biden’s vaccine requirements. The OSHA rule would require companies with 100 or more workers to adopt policies that require their staff to be vaccinated or that let vaccine refusers keep their jobs by submitting to weekly testing.
RealClearPolitics reporter Philip Wegmann returned to Sotomayor’s claims later in the briefing, noting that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared coronavirus misinformation a “public health crisis” in July as part of a broader Biden administration push to encourage people to get vaccinated.
“Not long ago in this room, the surgeon general told us that COVID misinformation was a public health threat,” Wegmann said. “I’m wondering if the White House is at all concerned given Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s remarks about the Omicron variant that maybe the danger is being overhyped and your message is not getting out?”
“I think I just addressed this,” Psaki said. “Didn’t I answer his question?”
Wegmann pressed: “Are you worried that there’s misinformation that is being spread so much so that even a sitting Supreme Court justice has an inaccurate picture of things?”
“Again, I’m just not going to weigh in on a specific legal argument made in the court,” Psaki said.
At the same briefing, the White House spokeswoman repeatedly pressed members of the Chicago Teachers Union to report for work on the fourth day of their standoff with local officials — though she would not say when or whether Biden himself would address the controversy.
About 73 percent of Chicago teachers voted against returning to school due to the surging Omicron variant — drawing condemnation from Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the White House, which has pointed to about $130 billion in federal funds approved in March so that schools can safely operate during the pandemic.
“Can we expect that the president will be more aggressive and use the bully pulpit to tell teachers unions in Chicago to get black in the classroom?” Wegmann asked Psaki.
“The president’s been very clear, as we have been clear, we are on the side of schools being open,” Psaki said. “That is why he advocated for funding in the American Rescue Plan [Act] and we will continue to convey that clearly because he believes the mental health impact on kids could be dire and it is imperative that kids are in the classroom. More than 95 percent of schools across the country are doing exactly that. And we’re hopeful that will continue to increase.”
According to CDC data, the national seven-day COVID-19 case average stood at more than 670,000 as of Friday — meaning roughly one in 500 US residents tested positive last week — and 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.
That Omicron variant is better able to evade vaccines and its toll is mounting despite the fact that 79 percent of US residents ages 5 and older have had at least one vaccine shot. About 66.5 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated and 36.3 percent got a booster shot.
Studies indicate the new variant causes less severe symptoms than prior strains of COVID-19, but preliminary data indicate unvaccinated people are more likely to become seriously ill and the large number of new cases has causes hospitalization rates to spike in New York and other parts of the country.
As of Saturday, there were nearly 131,000 US hospital patients with COVID-19 — compared to the prior US record of 133,000 coronavirus patients last January.