President Biden said Monday that the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant should be “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” as he urged people to get their vaccinations and boosters to protect themselves.
“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said at a White House news conference.
“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “You have to get your vaccine — you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster.”
The Omicron variant, first reported by scientists in South Africa on Thursday, has sent chills around the world because its numerous mutations raise the specter that it might be more transmissible, might cause more severe disease, and might evade the protection provided by vaccines or prior infection. A number of countries, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in the region. Japan, Israel, and Morocco have banned foreign visitors entirely.
Biden said officials believe that the current vaccines “will continue to provide a degree of protection” against severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
As an additional protection, he said, “Please wear your mask when you’re indoors, in public settings around other people. It protects you, it protects those around you.”
He said he did not anticipate the need for lockdowns or additional travel restrictions. “If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for lockdown,” he said.
He said his team was already working with the makers of the three vaccines administered in the United States in the “hopefully unlikely” event new vaccines or boosters need to be administered to protect against the variant.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” he said. “I’m sparing no effort. I’m removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
The makers of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines say they will test how well their vaccines work against Omnicron and will develop a booster targeting the strain, if necessary.
Biden also defended the imposition of travel restrictions on countries in southern Africa, saying the idea was not to prevent the virus from arriving in the United States but to buy time to prepare for it.
Biden said that on Thursday he would announce a detailed strategy on how to fight COVID-19 this winter. He said it would not involve shutdowns or lockdowns but “more widespread vaccination, boosters, testing, and more.”
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker also said Monday the best thing Massachusetts residents can do to protect against Omicron is to get vaccinated and get a booster shot if they’re eligible.
He urged patience as researchers learn more about the variant. “I think people need to recognize and understand that people are chasing this pretty hard. You’ve got folks all over the all over the globe who are chasing data and information, and it’ll probably take a few days to figure out what we don’t know,” Baker said during an appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” show.
Baker told reporters Sunday that the federal government, state governments, and probably municipal governments had been communicating all weekend. “I expect that will continue. The back and forth has been pretty constant since this issue was first raised,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, had sounded similar notes on the Omicron threat in a broadcast interview.
“We should not be freaking out. We should be doing the things we know work,” Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, said on “CBS This Morning.” “It’s not the time to panic. We should be concerned, and our concern should spur us to do the things we know work. So rather than panicking, rather than freaking out, we should just do the right thing.”
Fauci said the “right thing” included getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot of the vaccines that have proven effective against a virus that that has killed more than 777,000 Americans and more than 5.2 million people around the world.
“Get vaccinated for those who are unvaccinated. Absolutely,’' he said. “Get boosted if in fact you’ve already been vaccinated.”
Fauci credited scientists in South Africa for identifying the Omicron variant and for sharing their findings with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the US effort against COVID-19.
What scientists know so far is that the Omicron variant has been shown to have concerning mutations that suggest it could be highly transmissible. But it could take several weeks to fully understand the level of danger it poses, he said.
“It appears to be spreading very readily,’' he said. “The things that we don’t know right now is whether the people who do get infected have a severe form of disease.”
Also Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that in reaction to the emergence of Omicron, the agency was strengthening its booster recommendations.
Previously, the agency had said that, in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, all people 50 and over and people 18 and over who lived in long-term care settings “should” get a booster, while others age 18 to 50 “may” get a booster.
The agency now says it’s simple: Everyone age 18 and over “should” get a booster. People who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should get a booster after six months.
People 18 and over who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were already advised to get a booster after two months.
“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” Walensky said in a statement.
“I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness,” she said. She also encouraged people to get tested if they are sick and to follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask, stay 6 feet apart from others, and hand-washing.
The World Health Organization on Sunday warned that the “likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high.”
The WHO said in a technical brief to member countries that “there could be future surges of COVID‐19, which could have severe consequences.”
The WHO stressed the need for countries to accelerate vaccinations as rapidly as possible, particularly for vulnerable populations and for those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. It also called on health authorities to strengthen surveillance and field investigations, including community testing, to better determine Omicron’s characteristics.
“The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn,” the agency said.
“There are still considerable uncertainties,’' the WHO said.
Fauci said that travel bans are of limited effectiveness in keeping out an adaptable virus like COVID-19 and he stressed there is no current reason for the US to resume extensive lockdowns as a public health precaution.
“Let’s not be talking about lockdowns. Lockdowns are not considered right now,” he said. “The reason you do a travel ban is not that you think naively that you’re going to keep it out. But it buys you a couple of weeks.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
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