President Biden said Wednesday that he dropped the ball on COVID-19 testing around Christmas but insisted he is catching up with virus-fighting programs and putting the U.S. in the position to beat back the pandemic without resorting to lockdowns.
Mr. Biden pointed squarely at the pandemic as the nation’s biggest challenge as he enters the second year of his presidency with sinking approval numbers.
“Some people may call what’s happening now a ‘new normal.’ I call it a job not yet finished,” Mr. Biden said in a formal press conference from the White House’s East Room. “It will get better, we’re moving toward a time when COVID-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives — when COVID-19 won’t be a crisis but something to protect against.”
Mr. Biden acknowledged the pandemic “has been too much to bear” for many Americans — more people have died from the disease under him than his predecessor — and that he was caught unprepared as the supply for testing did not keep up with demand around the holidays.
Still, he promised there is a brighter future ahead as the omicron wave peaks in parts of the country.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes, but we’re doing more now,” Mr. Biden said.
Hoping to contain the winter surge, Mr. Biden is making 400 million N95-grade masks available for free in tens of thousands of pharmacies and community health centers and letting every American household request four tests for free delivery through the U.S. Postal Service.
Public health experts hailed the moves as necessary but said they should have come much sooner.
Mr. Biden characterized 2022 as a transition year, saying the availability of vaccines, booster shots, masks, tests and antiviral pills will ease the pressure.
“We’re not going back to lockdowns, we’re not going back to closing schools,” he said.
Mr. Biden defended his record on keeping schools as some districts return to remote learning, despite Washington sending billions in federal funding to combat the virus in classrooms. He said over 95% of schools are open so focusing on the small share is a negative way to frame the situation.
“Let’s put it in perspective,” Mr. Biden said.
However, the president said he wished that his virus-relief legislation forced states to spend the money faster.
“Some of them didn’t do a very good job. Some of them are still holding the money,” he said.
Mr. Biden said his hope for a better future will depend in part on the rest of the developed world donating its fair share of vaccines to struggling nations.
“It’s not enough just to fully vaccinate 340 million people in the United States,” he said.
He also said he pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to divulge more about the origins of the virus in Wuhan in late 2019.
“I made it clear that I thought that China had an obligation to be more forthcoming on exactly what the source of the virus was and where it came from,” Mr. Biden said, ignoring a part of the question that asked if his son Hunter Biden‘s China business dealings had influenced his talks with Mr. Xi.
Mr. Biden’s won kudos for his vaccination distribution in the early months of his administration. Things took a nosedive when the delta variant swamped the country over the summer, prompting the administration to stiffen mask guidance again and push a widespread booster-shot campaign.
The omicron variant spread quickly after it was detected in South Africa around Thanksgiving. Hospitalizations have reached a pandemic high of 150,000 patients although daily deaths of 1,900 remain far below last year’s peak of 3,200, likely due to the lower severity of omicron and widespread vaccination.
“It’s getting better,” Mr. Biden said.
More to do
Mr. Biden boasted about his efforts to get hundreds of millions of shots into arms but acknowledged there is more to do.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 63% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning tens of millions of residents haven’t come forward.
Two-thirds, or 67%, of those who are at least 5 years old and eligible for the shots, are fully vaccinated. About 39% of those who are fully vaccinated have come forward for a booster shot.
“Vaccinations work,” Mr. Biden said. “So get vaccinated, please. And get your booster.”
Some experts want Mr. Biden to include a booster in the definition of “fully vaccinated” instead of just the primary series of shots.
Mr. Biden rejected claims he is slow-walking the change because he fears the change would make it look like only a minority of the country is vaccinated.
He said a primary vaccine series will provide some measure of protection against COVID-19 but that he’s been clear a booster will offer optimal protection against the virus.
Mr. Biden had been relying on a regulation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to increase vaccination rates at large companies.
But the Supreme Court struck down the emergency temporary standard, saying OSHA overstepped in ordering private employers to root out unvaccinated workers and test them weekly for the virus.
The president said many companies will act on their own, regardless of federal rules.
“You still see thousands and thousands of people who work for corporations having to be tested,” he said. “I like you’ll see that increase, not decrease.”
Mr. Biden acknowledged that children up to the age of 5 are ineligible for a vaccine, but said scientists are working to develop one for them.
“That’s what they are doing now,” Mr. Biden said. “It will come. I can’t tell you when but it is really important we get that next piece.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
Health, The New York Today