Americans face COVID testing lags ahead of holidays: ‘We’re very, very far behind’

The new coronavirus variant is driving a surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Omicron is now present in all 50 states - just three weeks after it was first detected in the U.S. It has raised questions and concerns about heightened transmissibility of the variant, its severity, and the lack of available testing, especially during the holiday season. Stephanie Sy and Judy Woodruff report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's turn to Omicron and the rising wave of cases around the U.S.

    The new variant is driving a surge in the U.S. Omicron is now present in all 50 states just three weeks after it was first detected here.

    Stephanie Sy begins our coverage.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Washington, D.C., residents waited in line to get a free COVID-19 testing kit, in preparation for holiday travel. As the highly transmissible Omicron COVID variant surges…

  • Woman:

    No, just one box per person.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … demand for testing is high around the country. Pharmacies are quickly selling out of at-home tests. And testing sites in big cities, like New York, have hours-long wait times.

    The White House said today it's finalizing plans to secure 500 million at-home rapid tests to distribute for free. In an exclusive interview with President Biden yesterday, ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir asked why those kits weren't ordered sooner.

  • David Muir, ABC News:

    If you go to the pharmacy, we hear this over and over again, empty shelves, no test kits. Is that a failure?

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: No, I don't think it's a failure. I think it's — you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago.

  • David Muir:

    We're nearly two years into this pandemic. You're a year into the presidency. Empty shelves and no test kits in some places three days before Christmas, when it's so important, is that good enough?

  • Joe Biden:

    No, nothing's been good enough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For months before Omicron emerged, President Biden pledged to make at-home COVID tests more easily available. He made this statement in September:

  • Joe Biden:

    We're committing $2 billion to purchase nearly 300 million rapid tests for distribution to community health centers, food banks, schools, so that every American, no matter their income, can access free and convenient tests.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the ABC interview, the president said no one could have predicted Omicron and said fully vaccinated and tested Americans should still feel safe to gather.

  • Joe Biden:

    If you are tested, if you know where you are in terms of having gotten the shots, there's no reason why you can't get together with your family and your friends. And we couldn't do that last Christmas.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Meanwhile, another treatment option for high-risk COVID patients is on the horizon. The FDA today authorized the country's second antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 at home, just one day after Pfizer's Paxlovid was approved.

    Molnupiravir cuts COVID hospitalizations and deaths by 30 percent in those at higher risk of developing severe disease. Merck said it will have 10 million treatment packs available by the end of the month. And the White House plans to ship three million to states by the end of January.

    At busy airports today, many holiday travelers were undeterred by the wave of new cases.

    Tom Brownily, Resident of Philadelphia: We're both vaccinated fully, and have been since we could be. And so we follow all the protocols and feel pretty safe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But many Americans who have tested positive have seen the pandemic upend their holiday plans for yet another year.

    Tony Louthan, Resident of Washington, D.C.: If I test positive, I'm just staying in town, not visiting family. So, fingers crossed that it's a negative test.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    New infections have reached over 168,000 per day, surpassing this summer's peak; 7,800 people are being hospitalized each day, straining hospitals in the hard-hit Midwest and New England.

    And more than 1,300 Americans are still dying each day, a slight increase from previous weeks. Most of those deaths are attributed to the Delta variant.

    Cases are only expected to rise in coming weeks.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are so many questions about the transmissibility of this variant, its severity and testing availability that is sorely lacking, particularly when compared to the demand.

    Katherine Wu is a staff writer for "The Atlantic," where she covers science.

    Katherine Wu, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Clearly, this is just still a very difficult time for Americans just on the cusp of a holiday. Explain to us how this wave with Omicron is different from what we have already seen in this pandemic.

    Katherine Wu, "The Atlantic": Absolutely.

    I think the biggest thing to point out here is just this feels like a wave on fast forward. We're seeing case rates doubling at astounding rates. We're seeing so many people test positive.

    And I think one of the most concerning things about this particular wave is, Omicron has found a much larger susceptible population than Delta did just a few months ago. We know that vaccinated people are far better protected than those who are unvaccinated against this variant, but it's clear that Omicron can still move fast enough and dodge some immune defenses that it can still infect those vaccinated people and spread out of them.

    That means it's really just got a lot more room to move around populations. And we're seeing the effects of that now.

    The big concern here is we are going to see a big wave of cases and possibly enough hospitalizations to overwhelm health care systems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so reason to worry for those who are vaccinated and boosted, because, clearly, they are, we are susceptible too.

    But we also read, Katherine Wu, that cases may be milder than previous variants. What do we know about that?

  • Katherine Wu:

    Yes, so this is a really interesting collision between virus and vaccine right now.

    I think the first thing to know is that, again, it's not useful to talk about this variant in binary terms, safe or unsafe. Vaccinated, especially vaccinated and boosted people, are going to be much safer. We know that, even though this variant can dodge some of the defenses that vaccinated bodies mount, it's not going to overcome all of them.

    And that especially means that vaccinated people are especially going to be well-protected against more severe forms of disease. And maybe we are seeing that already play out. The world has so much more immunity than it did a couple years ago. We have progressed so far in such little time.

    And it is early days still. Remember that it takes a couple of weeks for hospitalization data to really manifest. And this variant has really only been in the global conversation for about a month. But we are seeing encouraging signs that case rates are not dragging hospitalization rates in quite the lockstep that they were before.

    If that continues to pan out, that could be a good sign. It's not game over for the pandemic. A small percentage of hospitalizations can still be devastating, because a small percentage of a big number can still be a huge number. But it is encouraging.

    I think what's complicated here is, when we say mild, that's disease. And disease is an interaction between host and pathogen. Is it because we as hosts are better defended, so it's milder, or is it because the virus is intrinsically less deadly? It could be both. And that's really difficult to untangle.

    So people shouldn't take mild for granted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's an important message.

    You and your co-authors have a new piece in "The Atlantic" today, where you say — among other things, you say, we keep making the same pandemic mistakes over and over again.

    Of course, one of the mistakes critics are pointing to has to do with lack of available and easily accessible testing. Just how far behind is the United States from where we should be with regard to testing?

  • Katherine Wu:

    We are very, very far behind.

    And I think this has been a mistake that really — we really have been repeating since almost day one. It took the country a very long time to bring tests online to any measurable degree. And we have really been playing catchup ever since.

    We have seen other countries roll out very successfully free testing programs, widely available testing programs, whether it's laboratory tests that use PCR or these home tests that some people can buy for $1 or even get for free in other countries.

    Here in the U.S., we're making steps toward having freely available tests, but that's going to take months to kick in, or we're being asked to reimburse tests. And that is a very cumbersome and limited process.

    We are nowhere near flush enough with tests as we need to be. The Biden administration's plan to roll out 500 million free ones, that sounds like a lot. But also remember that there are 330 million people in this country. That's less than two tests per person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have been thinking about that this week.

    And I think one question is, was it realistic for the administration to have, I don't know, had manufactured billions of tests? Because you're right, 330 million Americans, multiple tests that we need to — we're told we need to be taking whenever we're about to gather. It's a conundrum.

  • Katherine Wu:

    It definitely is.

    And I think the tricky thing is, we also have to strike this balance for people who are able to access those tests. Those are vital tools. But we also have to be humble in the face of a variant that moves this quickly. A test that's negative in the morning might not hold true by the afternoon.

    If the virus is spreading really quickly outside our bodies, it might be moving at quite a rapid clip inside our bodies as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All the more reason why we need more and more tests and, as you say, more than what we have available, so many questions still.

    Katherine Wu, thank you so much for your insights. We appreciate it.

  • Katherine Wu:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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