U.S. launches new effort to fight omicron variant’s spread with ‘science and speed’

The United States’ COVID-19 watch has turned up more cases of the omicron variant Thursday. They appeared as President Joe Biden unveiled new initiatives on vaccines, masking and treatment. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation's COVID-19 watch has turned up more cases of the Omicron variant tonight.

    They appeared as President Biden unveiled new initiatives on vaccines, masking and treatment.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, at the National Institutes of Health, just outside Washington, the president laid out new plans to fight the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant.

  • Joe Biden:

    Experts say COVID-19 cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead and this winter, so we need to be ready.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The plan requires private health insurance companies to cover costs of at-home COVID tests. It also extends mask requirements on public transit and domestic flights through mid-March, and beginning next week, it says all international flyers entering the U.S. must test negative for COVID one day before departure.

    The administration is also working to supply COVID treatment pills to high-risk Americans once the pills get FDA approval. In addition, the president is calling for new vaccination campaigns, new clinics and a new emphasis on booster shots for all adults. He is also vowing to get more vaccines to countries in need.

  • Joe Biden:

    Vaccinating the world is not just a moral tool, a moral obligation that we have, in my view. It's how we protect Americans, as we're seeing with this new variant. America is doing our part. And we will do more. But this is a global pandemic, and everyone needs to fight it together.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The strategy to push boosters domestically includes expanding appointment availabilities in pharmacies and increasing outreach to seniors.

    President Biden says it's all part of an effort to avert new shutdowns, especially of schools and businesses. All of this comes as more Omicron cases appeared across the U.S., including in Colorado and Minnesota. And day by day, the new variant keeps spreading globally, with more than two dozen countries reporting cases so far.

    Today, India confirmed its first cases of Omicron. In South Africa, the government is pushing for more people to get vaccinated, as Omicron rapidly overtakes the once-dominant Delta variant there. Gauteng province accounts for 70 percent of new cases in the country. That has prompted officials to reopen field hospitals.

  • David Makhura, Premier, Gauteng Province:

    We are worried about the rapid rise in these numbers. And we want to deal with it as if we are in the fourth wave, whether technically declared or not. That's how we are responding.

    We are not panicking, but we are deeply concerned about those who are still not coming forward to take their jabs.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In South Africa, daily COVID infections have nearly doubled. And health officials there say Omicron appears more likely to reinfect those who already had COVID. But, so far, they say, the cases have been mild.

    At the same time, African officials are raising more concerns over travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. and many other countries. While today President Biden defended U.S. travel restrictions on Southern African countries, some experts say the approach is misguided.

    Professor Salim Abdool Karim is a clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist from South Africa.

    Salim Abdool Karim, South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19: What it basically is doing is punishing South Africa and making South Africa take the economic impact. And what makes it more ridiculous is that this variant is now spreading in many countries, including those that have instituted the ban.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Abdool Karim said travel restrictions could prevent more countries from coming forward with information on future variants.

  • Salim Abdool Karim:

    What it's basically saying to the rest of the world that, in the future, if you have good surveillance systems and you have in place the mechanisms to identify a new variant and to identify it early, then, whatever you do, don't tell the world. Keep it secret.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    He expects, by the end of the week, that the number of new COVID infections in South Africa will reach more than 10,000 a day, pushing hospitals to capacity.

    For now, though, even as Omicron spreads, it's the Delta variant that's stretching health systems to the breaking point in Europe and parts of the U.S. Today, Germany announced plans to ban anyone unvaccinated from most public spaces as it faces a record high number of COVID deaths.

  • Acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

  • Angela Merkel, German Chancellor (through translator):

    Access to leisure, sports and cultural activities will be limited Germany-wide to those who are vaccinated or have recovered, irrelevant of the incidence rate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, public health officials and researchers are racing to determine whether the vaccines that work against the Delta variant will work as well against Omicron.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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