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President Biden addressed growing concerns about the omicron variant in speech

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When the highly contagious omicron variant first appeared, President Biden called it a, quote, "cause for concern but not panic." Well, since then, it has spread rapidly across the country. And the president today addressed the growing concerns.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know you're tired. I really mean this. And I know you're frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we're still in it. And this is a critical moment. We also have more tools than we've ever had before. We're ready. We'll get through this.

CHANG: President Biden laid out some new steps that his administration is taking to deal with this surge. And joining me now to talk about all of this is NPR's Tamara Keith from the White House and NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Hey to both of you.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: All right, Tam, let's start with you. You were in the room for the president's speech today, and he had a lot to say about tests. Let's start there. What are some of the new things that we'll be seeing on this front?

KEITH: The federal government is surging in pop-up testing sites to help in hard-hit areas like New York City. And they're setting up a website where people will be able to order free at-home tests to be sent to them in the mail from a supply of half a billion tests coming online beginning in January. But the thing that really stood out about this speech was the president standing there and saying, there will be a lot of cases and even a lot of cases among people who are vaccinated and boosted.

The focus now is on trying to limit severe illness and death and reducing spread if possible, which is where that announcement about testing comes in. He admitted that the supply of tests is not where it should be but also said that it's better than it has been, especially for at-home rapid tests. He also talked about other measures. The military is prepared to send in a thousand medical personnel to help strapped hospitals. FEMA's staging supplies. You know, in a lot of ways, it's back to the mode of a wartime effort.

CHANG: Right. So it sounds reassuring. But, Selena, I want to talk to you because you have been talking to public health experts about what they need and what they want to see from the federal government to deal with this surge, especially when it comes to testing. So what are they saying about this plan to distribute home tests?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, basically they're saying that it's a strong start but that it's not enough. Timing is one of the issues. The need for rapid tests is now with people gathering for Christmas. People can't find these tests anywhere. It's really tricky to find them. Rapid tests are really key with a virus that moves this fast. You need to test often, like, any morning you're going to gather. And they also say 500 million sounds like a lot, but in a country of 330 million...

CHANG: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...It works out to less than two per person. Also, people are noting the administration says starting in January these tests will go out, not in January because maybe it'll take some time to ramp up production and get them distributed. But in the meantime, public health experts say CDC urgently needs to come out with guidance on dealing with the current reality - what to do if you can't find a rapid test and you plan together, how to ration tests if you only have a few and can't test every morning. That could be really helpful for people now while we wait for these new plans to come to fruition.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, Tam, I mean, given the time of year right now that this surge is going on during, like, a lot of people have been wondering, should I even be visiting family and friends over the holidays? Should I even be taking this vacation? Can you talk about what the president said to address those concerns?

KEITH: Well, and certainly lots of people are at airports right now.

CHANG: Exactly.

KEITH: President Biden said, don't cancel Christmas. If you're vaccinated and ideally boosted, he said you can enjoy the holiday season. He said family gatherings should be safe if everyone is vaccinated. But for unvaccinated people, he got quite agitated and said they have an obligation, a patriotic duty to get the shot - unclear whether that will work. He urged boosters, and he even referenced his predecessor by name, which is a rare thing. He noted that former President Trump got his booster, making it one of the few things that they agree on. And Biden also was very clear that he is not looking to shut down schools or businesses like was done in March of 2020, when spread was out of control and there were no vaccines. He said it's not needed.

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BIDEN: And, no, this is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We're prepared. We know more. We just have to stay focused.

KEITH: Whether he says shutdowns are unnecessary or not, we have seen with the rapid explosion of cases a number of high-profile businesses shut down or reduced services, like for instance the National Hockey League going on a pause and the Rockettes ending performances for the year in the peak of their season.

CHANG: Right. Meanwhile, though, President Biden's message on the holidays was to just go ahead with your plans if you are fully vaccinated and boosted. But, Selena, what are public health experts saying about that piece of advice?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, this runs counter to the advice from the World Health Organization, which urged people yesterday to cancel their holiday plans. The quote from the head of the organization was "an event canceled is better than a life canceled." And he added that difficult decisions have to be made here. In a lot of countries, leaders are advising people to think carefully or be prudent, avoid travel. The Netherlands has gone even further with a strict lockdown.

It is striking that the president didn't tell people to consider risks here and think about scaling back plans. Limiting your contacts is key - a key way to slow the spread. Many public health experts I've talked to say, listen. Do weigh the need for joy and connection over the holidays over the risks. If the risks are worth it to you, then take steps to minimize them. Limit your time in public as much as you can. Wear high-quality, well-fitting masks, and use rapid tests if you can find them.

CHANG: Yeah. Can we talk more about tests? - because a lot of the changes that the president mentioned today with testing will take a while to roll out. I mean, it's hard to find rapid tests now. And there are these really long lines at testing sites all around the country right now. For example, NPR reporter Jasmine Garsd and WNYC reporter Gwynne Hogan - they spoke to dozens of people standing in line to get tested for COVID. Let's take a listen.

FONG SETO: Three hours - my feet is about to fall off.

ALEX DE SIMONE: It seemed like every other Instagram story was, oh, I got it. It seemed to happen out of nowhere.

JORDAN MCAFEE-HAHN: This is like - this feels different than March 2020, especially because it's a lot more contagious.

CHANG: OK. That was Fong Seto (ph), Alex de Simone (ph) and Jordan McAfee-Hahn (ph). Selena, what is driving all of the difficulty we're seeing to get tested now?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's probably a variety of factors converging. This is a really fast-moving virus, as we've said, and lots of people might have symptoms or know they've been exposed all at once. Others might be trying to get tested before their holiday plans. And at the same time, there's not as much capacity as there once was. There aren't currently shortages of, you know, chemical reagents or pipettes or swabs that we heard about earlier in the pandemic. But staffing is currently a problem. There aren't as many people to do swabs or in the lab processing samples, though I should say the exact reasons for backups might vary from place to place.

CHANG: Well, Biden is clear that he wants people to get vaccinated and boosted. Do you think the steps that he's taking will help?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, sources I've talked to say some of the things he's mentioned include more vaccinators, more vaccine sites, and that could help. But there are other things that the federal government could do that they haven't. For instance, the CDC could adjust requirements, changing the definition of fully vaccinated to three shots - that's something a lot of public health experts are pushing for - or shortening the time you need to wait for your third shot. There are a lot of anxious people four and five months out from their second shots who are feeling quite unprotected with this surge starting already.

CHANG: Absolutely. That was NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.