Remarks on the COVID-19 Response and National Vaccination Efforts and an Exchange With Reporters
The President. Good afternoon. I promised when I got elected that I'd always give it to you straight from the shoulder: the good, the bad, the truth. So, as we head into Christmas weekend, I want to answer your questions about the rising number of COVID cases—COVID-19 cases. And I want to start by acknowledging how tired, worried, and frustrated I know you are. I know how you're feeling.
For many of you, this will be the first or even the second Christmas where you look—across the table will be an empty kitchen chair there. Tens of millions have gotten sick, and we've all experienced an upheaval in our lives. But while COVID has been a tough adversary, we've shown that we're tougher, tougher because we have the power of science and vaccines that prevent illness and save lives, and tougher because of our resolve.
So that—let me answer some questions that lay out the steps the Vice President and I are taking to prepare for the rising number of cases experts tell us we could expect in the weeks ahead.
First, how concerned should you be about Omicron, which is now the dominant variant in this country, and it happened so quickly? The answer is straightforward: If you are not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned. You're at a high risk of getting sick. And if you get sick, you're likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying.
Almost everyone who has died from COVID-19 in the past many months has been unvaccinated. Unvaccinated. But if you're among the majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated, and especially if you've gotten the booster shot—that third shot—you're much—you have much, much less reason to worry. You have a high degree of protection against severe illness.
And because Omicron spreads so easily, we'll see some fully vaccinated people get COVID, potentially in large numbers. There will be positive cases in every office, even here in the White House, among the unvaccinated—among the vaccinated, among the vaccinated—from Omicron. But these cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness. Vaccinated people who get COVID may get ill, but they're protected from severe illness and death. That's why you should still remain vigilant.
According to our doctors, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should wear a mask when indoors in public settings. Wearing a mask provides extra protection for you and those around you. And I know some Americans are wondering if you can safely celebrate the holidays with your family and friends. The answer is yes, you can, if you and those you celebrate with are vaccinated, particularly if you've gotten your booster shot. If you are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you planned it. You know, you've done the right thing. You could enjoy the holiday season.
And thanks to the progress on vaccinations this fall, we've gone from nearly 90 million adults in July who had not even started their vaccination process to fewer than 40 million today. Still too many, but down from 90 to 40. All these people who have not been vaccinated, you have an obligation to yourselves, to your family, and quite frankly—I know I'll get criticized for this—to your country. Get vaccinated now. It's free. It's convenient. I promise you, it saves lives. And I, honest to God, believe it's your patriotic duty.
Another question folks are asking is: What can you do to make yourself and your family feel safer and be safer? The answer is simple: Get your booster shot. Wear a mask.
Our doctors have made it clear: Booster shots provide the strongest of protections. Unfortunately, we still have tens of millions of people who are eligible for the booster shot who have not yet gotten it. They've gotten the first two shots, but they've not gotten the booster.
Folks, the booster shots are free and widely available. Over 60 million Americans, including 62 percent of eligible seniors, our most vulnerable group, have gotten their booster shots. I got my booster shot as soon as they were available. And just the other day, former President Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot. It may be one of the few things he and I agree on.
People with booster shots are highly protected. Join them. Join us. It's been 6 months or more since my second shot. If it's been 6 months or more for your second shot—when I got my booster—you can get yours today if you've been 6 months or more since your second shot.
Another question that folks are asking is: Are we going back to March 2020—not this last March 2021, but March 2020—when the pandemic first hit? That's what I keep getting asked. The answer is absolutely no. No.
Here are three big differences between then and now: One—number one—the first one—more than 200 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. In March of 2020, no one was fully vaccinated. What that means is, today, as cases—a case of COVID-19 for a fully vaccinated and boosted person will most likely mean no symptoms or mild ones similar to the common respiratory viruses.
Over 200 million Americans should have the peace of mind that they did not have in March of 2020: They're protected from hospitalization, and they're protected from death.
Second point: We're prepared today for what's coming. In March of 2020, we were not ready. Today, we've stockpiled enough gowns, masks, and ventilators to deal with the surge of hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.
Today, we're ready. And as I'll explain in a few minutes, we're going to be reinforcing our hospitals, helping them.
Number three, we know a lot more today than we did back in March of 2020. For example, last year, we thought the only way to keep your children safe was to close your—close our schools.
Today, we know more, and we have more resources to keep those schools open. We can—you can get 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated, a tool we didn't have until last month.
Today, we don't have to shut down schools because of a case of COVID-19. Now, if a student tests positive, other students can take the test and stay in the classroom if they're not infected rather than closing the whole school or having to quarantine.
We can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that's exactly what we should be doing.
So, folks, let me summarize: We should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked. If you're fully vaccinated, and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected. And if you're unvaccinated, you're at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, getting hospitalized, and even dying.
So the best thing to do is get fully vaccinated and get your booster shot. 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. So that's where we stand.
Now, let me tell you about the additional steps I'm ordering today to take on what is coming. I know you've heard a lot of this in the news already this morning.
Three weeks ago, I laid out a COVID-19 action plan for this winter that prepared us for this moment. Today we're making the plan even stronger.
First, we're setting up our vaccination and booster efforts—we're stepping it up significantly. In the past 2 weeks, we've seen the highest vaccination rates since last spring. And we aren't as vaccinated, as a country, as we should be though. That's why we have added 10,000 new vaccination sites on top of the 80,000 sites that are already we had—we already had in place, and even more will open in January.
I know there are some parts of this country where people are very eager to get their booster, where it's harder to get an appointment. Excuse me.
[At this point, the President cleared his throat.]
So starting this week, I'll be deploying hundreds more vaccinators and more sites to help get the booster shots in people's arms. I've ordered FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to stand up new pop-up vaccination clinics all across the country where you can get that booster shot.
[The President coughed.]
Excuse me. We've opened FEMA vaccination sites in Washington State and New Mexico recently as cases have increased. And today I'm directing FEMA to stand up new sites in areas where there is a high demand. These steps are going to help us add more and more booster appointments in over—just over the next few weeks.
I also want to say a word to parents: If your children are not vaccinated, please get them vaccinated. If you're a parent—understandably—who waited to see how the first shots went with other kids before getting your own kid vaccinated, you can stop waiting. Six million children in our country ages 5 to 11 are vaccinated. Get your children protected today—now.
And for those parents out there who have a child that's too young to be vaccinated—that is under the age of 5—I know this can still be a scary time. But one thing—one thing—you can and must do while we await vaccines for children under 5: Get yourself fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as those around you: your children, your caregivers, your siblings. It's critical to mask up in public indoor places.
We know that our youngest children have only rarely been impacted by serious COVID cases—COVID-19 cases, but they can be further protected if they're surrounded by vaccinated people.
And again, to folks who are not vaccinated: You may think you're putting only yourself at risk, but it's your choice. Your choice is not just a choice about you; it affects other people. You're putting other people at risk—your loved ones, your friends, neighbors, strangers you run into. And your choice can be the difference between life or death.
The longer the virus is around, the more likely variants form that may be deadlier than the ones that have come before.
Let me say again and again and again and again: Please get vaccinated. It's the only responsible thing to do. And those who are not vaccinated are causing hospitals to overrun—become overrun again.
I just spoke to the Governor of New York. Every COVID-19 hospital [hospitalization]* means someone with a heart attack, cancer, or other serious illness may not get that bed and that lifesaving care they need in the hospital.
Look, let me give it to you straight again: Omicron is serious, potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people.
Let me be clear: Thanks to the prior administration and our scientific community, America is one of the first countries to get the vaccine. And thanks to my administration and the hard work of Americans, we led a rollout that made America among the world leaders in getting shots in arms.
But uptake slowed this summer as vaccine resistance among some hardened. Look, the unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices. But those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media.
You know, these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters.
It's wrong, it's immoral, and I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it. Stop it now.
One of the other things that we know that has to be done is more testing. Because Omicron spreads easily, especially among the unvaccinated, it's critically important that we know who's infected. That means we need more testing.
And on that score, we are now [not]* where we should be. Yes, we have over 20,000 free testing sites. Yes, we've used the Defense Production Act and spent $3 billion to greatly expand the number of at-home tests available for purchase online and at your local pharmacy. And yes, we've made sure insurance covers the PCR tests you get in a hospital or at your doctor's office.
But, starting next month, private insurance will all cover—also cover at-home testing so you can order a test online and get reimbursed. We're providing access to free at-home tests for those who may have insurance as well—may not have insurance, I should say, as well.
But it's not enough. We have to do more. We have to do better, and we will. Starting this week, the Federal Government will set up emergency testing sites in areas that need additional testing capacity. Before Christmas, the first several of these Federal testing sites will be up and running in New York City with many more to come.
This free testing is going to help reduce the waiting lines—the time you have to stand there—and sometimes, it's an hour or more. We're going to continue to add Federal testing sites where needed so that if you want an immediate test, there will be a place where you can go get it.
We also need to do better with at-home testing. So, I'm announcing today: The Federal Government will purchase one-half billion—that's not million; billion with a "b"—additional at-home rapid tests, with deliveries starting in January.
We'll be getting these tests to Americans for free. And we'll have websites where you can get them delivered to your home.
We have arranged for it to be easier for you to find a free COVID testing site near you on Google. Just enter "COVID test near me" in the Google search bar, and you can find a number of different locations nearby where you can get tested.
And we're going to continue to use the Defense Production Act as we did earlier this month to make sure we're producing as many tests and as quickly as possible.
The bottom line is, it's a lot better than it was, but we're taking even more steps to make it easier to get tested and get tested for free.
Next, we are preparing hospitals for what's coming. Those 40 [million]* unvaccinated adults have a good chance of getting COVID-19, and some of you will get very sick. That will mean hospitals are going to get extremely stressed—extremely stressed—again, both in terms of equipment as well as personnel to care for those who get sick.
That's why my administration has stockpiled and prepositioned millions of gowns, gloves, masks, and ventilators. We used to call it PPP [PPE].* We're ready to send them immediately to any State that needs more.
In addition, I have directed the Pentagon to mobilize an additional 1,000 troops to be deployed to help staff local hospitals and expand capacity. That's 1,000 military doctors, nurses, and medics. We've already started moving—military—excuse me, medical teams. They've already landed in Wisconsin and Indiana this week. And this is on top of 300 Federal medical personnel that are now on the ground, having deployed since we learned about Omicron.
Look, while we know staffing is the biggest need for our hospitals, some may need more beds as well. We're prepared. I've directed FEMA to activate the National Response Center and begin deploying teams now to provide additional hospital beds. We'll begin to construct emergency capacities near hospitals, in parking garages, and nearby buildings to be ready if needed. And the Federal Government is paying for all of this—period—all of it.
Further, FEMA will deploy hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews so that if one hospital fills up, we can transport patients to beds elsewhere.
This week, we will send dozens of ambulances to New York and Maine, because of the—because the COVID is spreading very rapidly, to help transport patients.
Our doctors, nurses, hospital staffs have gone above and beyond during this pandemic. The strain and stress is real. I really mean it. It's real. And we'll have their backs though. We have to let them know we have their backs.
Finally, we're making sure that COVID-19 no longer closes businesses or schools. Last week, the Federal court reinstated my administration's vaccination-or-test—the vaccination-or-test—rule for businesses with more than 100 employees. The rule requires employers with 100 or more employees to protect their workers who are on site and indoors with a requirement that they be vaccinated or tested each week or go home.
These rules are going to keep workers safe. And keep workers safe will help keep businesses open. If people are vaccinated or tested, they are much less likely to get sick and less likely to spread it to others. Customers are more likely to come in and shop because they know it's a safe environment.
I know vaccination requirements are unpopular for many. They're not even popular for those who are anxious to get them. But my administration has put them in place not to control your life, but to save your life and the lives of others. Over 400,000 Americans died from COVID this calendar year—and almost all were unvaccinated, almost all were preventable.
The rule is legal and effective, and it's going to save thousands of American lives.
We must also keep our K-12 schools open. Look, the science is clear and overwhelming. We know how to keep our kids safe from COVID-19 in school. K-through-12 schools should be open. And that safety is increased if schools require all adults who work in the schools to get vaccinated and take the safety measures that CDC has recommended, including masking.
I got Congress to pass billions of dollars in school improvements, ventilation, and social distancing. Schools should be safer than ever from COVID-19. And just Friday, the CDC issued a—test-to-stay guidelines so schools can stay open and kids can stay in class even if a classmate tests positive.
COVID-19 is scary. But the science is clear: Children are as safe as—are—as safe in school as they are anyplace, assuming the appropriate precautions have been taken, and they've already been funded.
Let me close with this: 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. But we also have more tools than we've ever had before. We're ready. We'll get through this.
As we head into the holidays, I want us to all keep the faith. I want to sincerely thank you for your perseverance, your courage, your countless acts of kindness, love, and sacrifice during these last 2 years.
Throughout our history, we've been tested as a people and as a nation. Through war and turmoil, we had to ask whether we'd be safe, whether we'd be okay, whether we'd be—get back to who we are.
We've always endured because we remember there is no challenge too big for America—I mean this from the bottom of my heart—no challenge. We've come through better and stronger because we stay together as the United States of America.
That's what we have to keep doing today. We can do this together, I guarantee you.
May God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. And happy holidays. God love you all. Thank you.
Q. Mr. President——
Q. Mr. President——
Coronavirus Prevention Efforts/Availability of Coronavirus Self-Test Kits/Defense Production Act of 1950
Q. Mr. President, on testing—on testing, sir, you said, "We have to do better." But public health officials have been saying, for months, you need to surge rapid test for just this moment.
Is it a failure that you don't have an adequate amount of tests for everyone to be able to get one if they need one right now?
The President. No, it's not, because COVID is spreading so rapidly, if you notice. It just—just happened almost overnight, just in the last month. And——
Q. What's your message——
Q. Mr. President——
The President. I'm going to answer first. [Laughter]
The President. And so, no—[laughter]—it's not a failure, but the alarm bell went off. I don't think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did.
And so the question is: We had a lot of people who have access to a test, who could order them, could have their insurance pay for them, et cetera.
But it all started—all of a sudden, it was like everybody rushed to the counter. There was a big, big rush. And I knew that was coming, so what I tried to do is meet with the companies and use the Defense Production Act to get a half a billion more tests and figure out how to get them to their homes, get them on the shelves in the store.
I mean, so that—that's what it's all about.
Coronavirus Omicron Variant
Q. Mr. President, what's your message to Americans who are trying to get tested now and who are not able to get tested and who are wondering what took so long to ramp up testing?
The President. Come on. What took so long?
Q. That's what—I'm hearing that from people who are trying to get tested now before the holidays.
The President. Well, what took so long is—it didn't take long at all. What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.
If I had told you 4 weeks ago that this would spread by—a day-to-day basis it would spread by 50, 100 percent, 200 percent, 500 percent, I think you would have looked at me and say, "Biden, what are you drinking?" But that's what it did.
Now, we don't know what's going to happen from here. It looks—there's some evidence that, in South Africa where a lot of this started, that it's dropping off quickly too. We don't know.
But I do know that we're not going to be in a position, like I said when we—remember we were having a problem with masks and gowns and the like? I said, "I promise you."
Remember the criticism—I got questions from some of you. "Why are you still paying for all these masks and gowns? Why you stockpiling this?" Because we don't know. It turns out, we're going to need them.
In the back, and then——
Q. Mr. President——
U.S. Travel Restrictions From South Africa and Elsewhere
Q. Do travel bans work, sir, and will you reverse the travel ban now that Omicron is so prevalent here in the U.S.?
The President. I'm considering reversing. I'm going to talk with my team in the next couple of days.
Look, remember why I said we put the travel ban on: It's to see how much time we had before it hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what's happening in other countries.
And—but we're past that now. And so it's something that is being raised with me by the docs, and I'll have an answer for that soon.
Q. Mr. President—[inaudible]——
Q. Mr. President, will you hold——
Build Back Better Act/Inflation
Q. Mr. President, you often talk about the importance of keeping your word of trust. Do you believe Senator Manchin kept his word to you? And how do you rebuild trust with progressives in your party to advance your legislation now?
The President. You know, I told you before—you've heard me say this before: Some people think maybe I'm not Irish because I don't hold a grudge.
Look, I want to get things done. I still think there's a possibility of getting Build Back Better done.
What I don't want to do is get into—and Joe went on TV today and—I don't know if it was TV or not; I'm told he was speaking to the liberal caucus in the House and said, "Joe Biden didn't mislead you, I misled you."
And so, look, I'm not looking for—let me say something: You saw what happened yesterday. All the talk about how my Build Back Better plan was going to increase inflation, was going to cause these debts, and all the like—what happened?
Goldman Sachs and others said if we don't pass Build Back Better, we're in trouble—because it's going to grow the economy. And without it, we're not going to grow. And what happened? Stock prices went way down. It took a real dip.
If you take a look, the vast—I wasn't—everybody thinks because I quoted 17 Nobel laureates saying, "This is going to help inflation"—think about it in terms of, if you're a hard-working person and you're making 60 grand if you're alone, if you're mom or just on her own; or if you're making 80 grand—a mom and dad, 90 grand, like a lot of people do, and you're worried about inflation: You should be worried about it, because it's a devastating thing for people who are working class and middle class folks. It really hurts.
Where is most of the cost now? The cost is finding it in gasoline, even though I've put—even though I was able to bring it down 12 cents a gallon, and it will come down more, I believe. We talked about what the cost in food prices going up, et cetera.
But look what's in Build Back Better: Childcare—you can reduce it by up to 70 percent. That will be the difference between 20 million women who go—aren't back in the workforce being able to go back, if you pass it.
We're talking about—we're talking about health care, insulin. We're in a situation—we've got 200,000 kids with type 1 diabetes. You know what it's costing? It cost somewhere between 10 cents and 10 dollars to come up with a formula—okay?—a while ago. All right? You know what it's costing on average? $560, $640 a month, up to $1,000 a month.
What do you do if you're a mom and a dad working with minimum wage, busting your neck, and you look at your kid and you know if you don't get that vaccine for them—I mean, that—excuse me, if you don't get that drug for them, if you don't get that—be able to take that, what happens? They're likely to go into a coma and maybe die. Not only do you put the kid's life at stake, you strip away all the dignity of a parent looking at their child. I'm not joking about this.
Imagine being a parent, looking at a child, and you can't afford—you have no house to borrow against, you have no savings. It's wrong. But all the things in that bill are going to reduce prices and cost for middle class and working class people. It's going to reduce their costs.
What's inflation? Having to pay more than the money you have because things have gone up. Well, it will bring down all those costs across the board, from childcare to a childcare tax credit.
But I'm not supposed to be having this press conference right now. Anyway——
Q. Mr. President——
Q. Mr. President——
Q. Would you support standalone parts——
Senator Joseph A. Manchin III
Q. Mr. President, did Senator Manchin break his commitment to you? When you announced the framework, the White House says that all 50 Senators were believed to get behind it—all 50 Democratic Senators. So did Senator Manchin break his commitment to you?
The President. Senator Manchin and I are going to get something done. Thank you.
Q. Are you still carrying the cards with the COVID deaths on them?
Q. [Inaudible]—on Ukraine?
Q. Will you extend the pause on student loans? Will you extend the pause on student loans?
Q. Sir, do you still have the card with the deaths?
Q. Are you concerned the—[inaudible]—you gave Ukraine, sir?
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:42 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul of New York. He also referred to H.R. 5376.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on the COVID-19 Response and National Vaccination Efforts and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353918