Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
12:32 P.M. EST
MR. ZIENTS: Hi, everybody. It's Jeff Zients. Good afternoon. And thank you for joining us. We're doing this in a different format today due to the Summit for Democracy. So we'll host this as a phone briefing.
Today, Dr. Walensky will provide an update on the Omicron cases in the U.S. and around the world, and Dr. Fauci will show the latest science on what we know about this new variant.
First, I'll start with the President's aggressive plan to combat COVID and get people maximum protection this winter.
As we've heard over and over from the doctors, vaccines remain our best line of defense against COVID. So, our message is straightforward: The best thing you can do if you're concerned about Omicron is to get boosted if you were fully vaccinated before June, get your kids vaccinated, get yourself vaccinated if you haven't already, and encourage your friends and family members to do the same.
And more and more Americans are stepping up to do just that. Just in the last week, we've gotten 12.5 million total shots in arms. That's the highest weekly total of number of shots since May -- so, seven months ago -- 12.5 million total shots in arms last week.
So, we're now vaccinating people in numbers that we haven't seen since the spring. And that's critical progress as we head into the winter and confront the new Omicron variant.
The President's winter plan builds on this momentum, starting with getting more people a booster shot.
In the last week, we've gotten nearly 7 million people a booster; that's a million booster shots in arms a day. And that's more people getting a booster shot per day than ever before.
So, people are responding to the doctors' clear message that boosters give you the highest protection yet and that you should go get your booster shot as soon as possible.
To meet the growing demand, the President's plan maximizes booster operations and outreach. And we're already working across the federal government and with governors, pharmacies, and other partners to execute.
So, for example, just this week, 14 million Medicare enrollees will receive a reminder email about boosters.
Connecticut is reaching its hardest-hit communities through mobile, pop-up clinics.
New Hampshire is standing up 15 community-based booster sites this Saturday as part of the state's "Operation Booster Blitz."
Walmart, Albertsons, and other pharmacies are offering millions of walk-in booster shots. And Walgreens has already made half a million calls to seniors to remind them to get their booster.
So, we're making significant progress here, especially in getting boosters to our most vulnerable population: seniors. The majority of eligible seniors have now gotten a booster -- 55 percent of eligible seniors are boosted -- with more and more seniors becoming eligible and getting their booster shot each and every day.
A new survey from LeadingAge, which represents more than 5,000 service providers, showed that 91 percent of nursing home facilities and 82 percent of housing and service providers have completed their booster clinics.
At the same time as we get seniors and others boosted, millions of families across the country are entering the holiday season with a huge sense of relief because of our effective rollout of vaccines for kids.
In fact, today, we'll hit 5 million kids ages 5 through 11 with at least their first shot. Five million kids with their first shot -- that's a major milestone in our effort to keep our kids safe and our schools open.
The President's plan doubles down on making it even more convenient for parents to get their kids and themselves the shots they need. This includes launching hundreds of new [family] vaccination clinics at community health centers and other trusted locations around the country.
These one-stop shops will offer vaccinations for the whole family at the same time and same place. Parents will be able to get their first, second, or booster shots, and get their kids vaccinated all at once.
Already Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey have announced they will also launch these family vaccination clinics. And FEMA is deploying mobile family vaccination clinics to New Mexico and Washington State to reach parents and kids in high-risk communities.
I recently heard a story that illustrates the power of these efforts. Earlier this fall in Little Rock, Arkansas, 11-year-old Shiloh Crawford went with his mom to a community festival where she was working. Shiloh had been wanting his mom to get vaccinated, so when he saw there was a vaccination clinic at the festival, he asked her to go to the clinic.
And together with community members, Shiloh helped answer his mom's questions about getting vaccinated and convinced her to get vaccinated -- holding her hand as she got her first shot.
More recently, Shiloh and his sister got their own first shots at a school-based clinic accompanied by their fully vaccinated mom.
That's what families do. They look out for one another. They protect one another. And through family vaccination clinics, we're making it easier for them to get protected together.
Before I close, I want to share a brief update on our work to vaccinate the world. Under President Biden's leadership, we've committed to donating 1.2 billion doses to the world.
Today, we hit a major milestone in our effort to deliver on that commitment: Over 300 million doses donated and shipped to 110 countries.
To put American leadership and generosity into context, for every vaccine-eligible person in America today, we have now donated about one dose to another country.
The President's winter plan set an aggressive goal for acceleration: 200 million doses shipped to the world in 100 days. And we're making important progress to meet this goal.
In fact, since the President's announcement on Thursday, we've gotten nearly 20 million doses packed and shipped to countries in need.
Let me close with this: We have more tools than ever before to confront COVID and Omicron and to continue making progress in our fight against the virus.
And across the board, we're executing on the President's winter plan to use every tool at our disposal to keep people safe, our schools open, and the economy growing.
With that, over to Dr. Walensky.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you so much, Jeff. And good afternoon, everyone. I'm going to start by walking you through today's data.
The current seven-day average of cases is about 103,800 per day. And the seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 6,800 per day. The seven-day average of daily deaths is about 1,100 per day.
At CDC and across the government, we continue to remain focused on our efforts to address both the Delta and the now Omicron variants.
It's important to underscore that while much of the news is focused on the new Omicron variant -- where we continue to learn more each day -- I want to reiterate that our updated Nowcast from late last week continues to demonstrate that over 99 percent of sequenced cases in the United States continue to be from the Delta variant.
Right now, there are reports of Omicron cases in over 50 countries. And here in the U.S., there are confirmed cases in 19 states, and we expect that number to continue to increase.
State and local public health authorities, in collaboration with the CDC, are actively investigating confirmed and possible cases, conducting contact tracing, and implementing prevention strategies to help slow the spread of this new variant.
In our efforts to both understand the new Omicron variant and work to protect Americans against disease as it spreads, CDC is taking the necessary steps to remain prepared and equipped.
CDC staff are available 24/7, as they have been throughout this entire pandemic, to provide in-person and remote technical support for the public health response to the Omicron variant, including investigations of the epidemiologic and clinical characteristics of Omicron or other SARS-CoV-2 infections.
Between November 26th and December 6th, CDC has had an in-depth collaboration with more than 25 jurisdictions related to suspected and confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
CDC is communicating closely with state and jurisdictional partners, and addressing specific requests for technical assistance as the highest priority. CDC has teams of experts ready to deploy to jurisdictions across the country to conduct outbreak investigations and provide epidemiologic and technical support when requested.
We are actively working with state and local jurisdictions to link states, territories, and countries that have residents who have traveled outside of their state of residence during the recent weeks to share exposure information and to enhance our contact tracing efforts.
Most recently, CDC is assisting both the Minnesota and New York City health departments with the investigation among attendees at a recent Anime New York City convention and has now contacted all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., and 27 other countries with residents who attended, to inform them of this ongoing investigation.
Of the reported 53,000 people who attended that conference, more than 35,000 and counting have been contacted to encourage testing for all attendees. Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant.
We are working with international airports on post-arrival testing and sequencing program as well, which is done in collaboration with two commercial partners to offer arriving air travelers from specific locations both pooled testing conducted in the airport and a take-home test for saliva sampling done three to five days after arrival. All positive samples are then sequenced, enabling detection of Omicron and other COVID-19 variants.
Right now, we're seeing about 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day in the United States. We must act together in this moment to address the impact of the current cases we are seeing, which are largely Delta, and to prepare ourselves for the possibility of more Omicron.
We must act in this moment to mobilize together to do what we know works. We have months of study on Delta, and all of those data demonstrate that vaccines work, testing works, masking works, and that ventilation works.
While we are still working to understand the severity of Omicron, as well as how it responds to therapeutics and vaccines, we anticipate that all of the same measures will at least, in part, provide some protection against Omicron.
So, if you are not yet vaccinated, this means getting vaccinated. If you are eligible to be boosted and you are not yet boosted, this also means getting boosted, along with wearing a mask in indoor public settings, frequently washing your hands, improving ventilation, physical distancing, and increased testing to slow transmission of this virus.
At a time where there is much uncertainty with Omicron, we find ourselves in a far better position now than we were last year. We have gained knowledge and experience from addressing other variants, such as Delta, and we have far more science, tools, and treatment options available.
Thank you. I'll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. If I could have the first slide.
There are some key unanswered questions at this point regarding Omicron. One is transmissibility, its severity, and its immune evasion.
So, let's take a, first, look at some of the things that were suggested by Dr. Walensky and see what the data tell us, even though they are in a preliminary form.
If one looks at the transmissibility, we have molecular evidence to suggest that the mutations that are seen in Omicron and in other variants would suggest that they are associated with increased infectivity.
Real-world evidence is accumulating rapidly, literally on a daily basis, to allow us to determine increase in cases, possible increase in reproductive number, and the rapid replacement of Delta by Omicron in certain situations.
With regard to the rapid increase in cases, this is a schematic diagram of a seven-day rolling average of confirmed cases per million people in South Africa. The almost vertical inflection of this clearly argues towards a high degree of transmissibility.
When you look at the reproductive number -- or in this case, the effective reproductive number -- going from left to right on the scale, you see that the reproductive number hung around one through April, May, June, July, October. And then, when we get down to the end of November, the beginning of December, you see a sharp peak and spike, which is dominated by the Gauteng province, as we've heard from our South African colleagues.
Now, this is a South African scheme here looking at the prevalence of variants over time, dating back from before April and the beginning of the year. As you can see from the pink on the left-hand part of the slide, that was when South Africa was dominated by the Beta variant, also known as B.1.351.
Cases came down dramatically, and then a number of other variants was seen to variable degrees from July through October. But look at the right-hand part of the slide, with the blue represented by Omicron. There was a, as I mentioned, almost a vertical spike where -- in South Africa -- with the increase in new cases, very heavily weighted towards Omicron, strongly suggesting a dominant capability of that variant over others.
Then you ask: What about the severity of disease?
Again, it is too early -- if I have the next slide -- it's too early to be able to determine -- could I have the next slide, please?
It's too early to be able to determine the precise severity of disease, but inklings that we are getting -- and we must remember these are still in the form of anecdotal, but hopefully in the next few weeks we'll get a much clearer picture.
But it appears that with the cases that are seen, we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease. In fact, it might be -- and I underscore "might" -- be less severe, as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases. However, this could be influenced by the fact that many in this particular cohort are young individuals. The hospital stays seems to be less and the use of supplemental oxygen needs to be less.
Again, I caution you, these are still preliminary.
And then, finally, there's the issue of immune evasion. How do you determine immune evasion?
If I could have the next slide?
There's a study, again, from South Africa which showed that there was an increased propensity for reinfection among people who were previously infected with Beta or Delta to get re-infected more readily with Omicron rather than with Beta and Delta, giving an indication -- again, without definitive proof -- that there is a variation and, in fact, evasion of immunity that is induced by other variants.
And on this final slide, there are some key questions we need to answer. What is the timetable? First, does vaccine-induced antibodies lose some of their effectiveness on Omicron?
We are doing live virus and pseudo virus assays that might be ready for interpretation in the middle of next week for the pseudo virus and probably the end of next week for the live viruses. We'll be able to determine whether or not antibodies induced by our vaccines lose their capability of effectiveness with Omicron.
In addition, we're doing animal studies to evaluate immune protection, as well as the efficacy of antivirals.
And finally, real-world evidence in epidemiology and clinical studies will answer definitively all of the three questions that I showed on the first slide.
Back to you, Jeff.
MR. ZIENTS: Thank you, Doctors. Let's open it up for some questions.
MODERATOR: All right. We have time for a few questions today.
First question, let's go to Brenda Goodman at WebMD.
Q: Hi, there. Dr. Walensky, I know that -- I'm glad you brought up vaccinations in kids, and I'm -- I know that a lot of kids are -- just became eligible for their second dose, and I wondered if you had any safety updates for us yet on -- have you seen any cases of Myocarditis in particular reported?
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, thank you for that question. We continue to comb those data. We haven't had anything that's come to us as a signal, and we continue to watch that carefully.
MODERATOR: Next question, let's go to Betsy Klein at CNN.
Q: Hey there, thanks for taking my question. Obviously, we heard a little bit from Dr. Fauci just now on the Omicron variant. But do you have any updates on when exactly we can expect to learn more about the severity of disease from the variant; how that information from the studies you outline will be shared with the public; and furthermore, when decisions could be made on when those travel restrictions and imposed last week could be lifted?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci?
Q: Yes, as I was alluding to on the slides that I showed, most of the data on the severity will likely come first from South Africa because of the volume of cases that they have.
Given severity, hospitalization, and death are always lagging indicators, I would imagine it will take at least another couple of weeks before we have a good handle, and then a really good handle a few weeks thereafter. So, I would say we shouldn't be making any definitive conclusions, certainly not before the next couple of weeks.
MR. ZIENTS: On travel restrictions, the second part of your question, on Southern Africa: As we've talked about, they were taken out of an abundance of caution to help slow the spread and give us the time to prepare and, as Dr. Fauci just described, evaluate the Omicron variant.
We are continuing to see, as Dr. Fauci presented, thousands of cases every day in Southern Africa. There are lots of unknowns about the transmissibility, the severity, the vaccine impact of the Omicron. And we will learn more about the variant, as Dr. Fauci just described and Dr. Walensky described, over the coming days and weeks.
So, I want to emphasize that we understand that this limitation is causing difficulty for those in Southern Africa. But we think the temporary limitation on a limited number of countries, until we have the answers we need, is a reasonable measure, for a reasonable period of time. And we are continuously, day-to-day, reevaluating the policy.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, let's go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News.
Q: Hey, guys, thank you. The new CDC guidelines out last night suggest using an at-home rapid test before indoor gatherings. Dr. Walensky, can you define what that means, when people should be using these tests, and how often? For example, should people be using them before they go out to indoor dine or is it just for larger gatherings?
And to Dr. Fauci, is it fair to say, on the timeline of when we'll know things, that we'll know -- have a good idea of transmission before we know about immune evasion and maybe the last part we will have a good idea about will be severity?
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, let me just talk about sort of gathering. The first thing I just think we need to reiterate is, you know, the test -- that an at-home test can tell you if you have disease right now and whether you might transmit it to somebody else. But the best thing that we can do is to protect from getting disease.
So, of course, that means vaccinating and boosting, that means wearing masks in public indoor settings, especially in areas of high trans- -- high and substantial transmission.
What I would say about using a rapid test is that, you know, when you're practicing all of those prevention interventions and you want to gather together -- for example, for the holidays in a multi-generational household -- and everybody has been practicing those prevention interventions before you come together, everybody might want to do a test for an extra set of reassurance to make sure that you can gather safely together.
So, that's the intent of those updated guidances.
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: Yeah, with regard to the sequence of our ability to know transmission versus immune evasion versus severity, it should be understood that transmission and immune evasion are going to be rather linked, and it will be different depending upon the demography of the country that you're dealing with.
For example, we have a much more vaccinated population than those in South Africa. They have a much greater proportion of their population infected with HIV, which would be important with regard to their ability to mount an immune response against prior infection and against vaccination.
So, I would think that there will be, in parallel, appreciating transmission as well as immune evasion.
It will be very important when we get enough cases in this country to determine if prior infection versus prior vaccination, what kind of impact that has on the transmissibility as well as on the severity.
But the last part of your question -- it is very likely that the last thing we'll get a good handle on will be the broad severity, or not, of the infection.
MODERATOR: Next question, let's go to Zeke Miller, AP.
Q: Thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on a question that Jen Psaki got yesterday in the White House briefing regarding testing -- earlier comments on rapid testing as well. Why isn't the U.S. following peer countries and, you know, making at-home tests, rapid tests readily available to people?
If you fly to the UK, you get a seven-day package of rapid tests from the NHS. Why not send rapid tests to every American in an attempt to sort of make people safer during the holiday period? Isn't there still COVID funding available that can make that accessible?
MR. ZIENTS: Thanks, Zeke. And I think that, you know, we do want to make sure that people have access to free tests everywhere in America.
Our approach is not to send everyone a test, sort of independent of their need or desire to get tested. We believe the most efficient and effective approach is more nuanced than that. And if you have private insurance, we're making sure you'll get reimbursed by your insurer for at-home tests. And we made sure that tests you get from your healthcare provider, like PCR tests, are covered with no co-pays in either situation.
If you're uninsured or on Medicare or Medicaid, we've quadrupled the number of free pharmacy tests with a priority on vulnerable communities -- 20,000 pharmacy and community sites today. We're sending 50 million free tests starting this month to convenient locations like health centers and community centers. So, everyone in America has access to free testing in an efficient and effective way, and we've developed multiple access points for free testing.
But we've made tremendous progress, as you know, across the last (inaudible). The President has invested billions of dollars here. We will continue to invest. We'll continue to expand affordability and access to tests with more competition. There are now 13 tests approved from the FDA. That's up from none at the beginning of the administration. And that leads to innovation, that leads to prices coming down in competition. So we're going to continue to increase the access to free testing to everyone in America.
MODERATOR: All right, last question. Let's go to Shannon Pettypiece at NBC.
Q: Hi. I guess along the line of these rapid tests, is there any concern that with more people doing these at-home tests, the CDC is going to lose visibility into how many cases are out there or what type of variants are circulating if so many people are doing the tests at home and that data is not going through a lab and getting reported?
MR. ZIENTS: It's a good question. Over to you, Dr. Walensky.
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, it is a good question. You know, we want to use these rapid tests because they're convenient and they let people do the right thing. They let people self-quarantine or self-isolate when they're positive so that they can actually do the right thing and prevent transmissions.
We are still doing over a million PCR tests a day. And many of those rapid tests, people seek medical care and then get a confirmatory PCR. So we really do still have quite a good window.
But the rapid tests do allow people to sort of be empowered with their own health and also to protect their loved ones rapidly when they get a test that's positive.
MR. ZIENTS: All right, everybody. Thank you for bearing with us in this different format today. We'll be back together later in the week. Appreciate everybody. Thank you.
1:00 P.M. EST
To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/COVID-Press-Briefi...
Joseph R. Biden, Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353673