Amid fears that the Omicron variant will lead to soaring numbers of new cases and overwhelm hospitals, local health officials urged President Biden on Sunday to take stronger measures to get more people tested, vaccinated, and protected against the coronavirus threat.
Biden is due to speak Tuesday on the nation’s fight against COVID-19, but epidemiologists in Massachusetts had words of advice for the president.
They called for widely available rapid testing, better access to mRNA vaccines, which teach cells how to make a protein that triggers the body’s immune response, and stronger warnings about curtailing large indoor gatherings.
“We need to explain the severity of the situation we are facing,” said Matthew Fox, an epidemiology and global health professor at Boston University School of Public Health. “Regardless of what happens with Omicron, we are seeing surges in cases and hospitalizations, and the holiday season is only going to make things worse.”
On Sunday, the White House’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, offered a grim prognosis for the nation as it approached a second holiday season mired in the health crisis.
Fauci, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said the United States is likely to see rising numbers of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths amid the spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant.
“Unfortunately, I think that that is going to happen. We are going to see a significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination,” Fauci said.
Fauci said Omicron was expected to surpass the Delta variant to become the dominant strain across the country.
Also on Sunday, Senator Elizabeth Warren said she tested positive for COVID-19 in a breakthrough case. In a Twitter post, she said she is only experiencing “mild symptoms.”
Biden, whose administration has faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic, was expected to speak about the status of the nation’s fight against the pandemic Tuesday, according to a statement from the White House Sunday.
“Building off his Winter Plan, the President will announce new steps the Administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance, while also issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated,” the statement read.
“The administration is prepared for the rising case levels, and the President will detail how it will respond to this challenge,” the statement read.
Nationwide, more than 50.6 million cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.
The national death toll due to COVID-19 has already surpassed 800,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Late last month, Biden said the emergence of the Omicron variant was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” and urged people to get vaccinations and boosters to protect themselves.
“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” Biden said at the time. “You have to get your vaccine — you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster.”
In Massachusetts, where most of the state’s residents have received at least one vaccine shot, the state has been reporting increasing numbers of cases and hospitalizations. As of Friday, the latest data available, more than 6,300 new cases were reported, as well as 45 deaths, according to the state.
A key priority in the COVID battle is preserving the nation’s hospital and health system capacity, health experts warned, particularly in areas where many remain unvaccinated.
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, said in an e-mail Sunday that hospitalizations are on a trajectory that looks very similar to last year’s, he said.
He is concerned about hospitals as a large influx of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm them, he said, and many hospital systems have even less capacity than last winter, due to early retirements and staff suffering burnout and changing careers.
“The rapid growth of Omicron is exceedingly worrisome and has the potential to produce hospitalizations extremely rapidly,” Lover said.
After nearly two years, this holiday season comes at a critical moment in the pandemic, said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of Boston College’s global public health program.
The president should appeal to Americans to come together and get vaccinated for the common good, Landrigan said.
“It’s awfully hard because there’s been so much misinformation put out,” Landrigan said. “But I think he basically has to ask people, in this time of peace, in this time of reconciliation, to look into themselves, and think about the people around them, the community around them, and do what’s right to hold our country together.”
Dr. Davidson Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said Biden has to help people overcome fatigue with the pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on daily life.
Putting more vaccine shots into arms needs to be a priority for Biden’s remarks Tuesday, Hamer said. The president needs to focus his message on Americans who are not vaccinated and figure out how to overcome mistrust of politicians as the vaccine has become divisive, he said.
“The problem in hearing it from the president, there is a lot of mistrust of government and of science among certain sectors of the population. I’m not sure the president is the best messenger for this,” Hamer said. “They need to hear it from somebody that they trust.”
William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, criticized some of Biden’s previous steps to address the pandemic, including messaging around Omicron and a plan that requires people to pay upfront for rapid tests and later seek reimbursement from health insurers.
With the threat of more cases posed by Omicron, Biden, as well as local leaders, including Governor Charlie Baker, need to take stronger steps to limit spread and preserve capacity in hospitals and health care systems, such as requiring masks in indoor public spaces.
“It’s a community effort that we need to get going here,” Hanage said. “This is helping your neighbor.”
It’s important to give people hope, he said, and encourage them to take steps to protect themselves and other people.
Helen Jenkins, a Boston University epidemiologist, also said Biden needs to make tests more freely available to all, as well as improve vaccine access, and advise people in plain terms.
“He should be advising people to focus on doing the thing most important to them during these holidays — skip the large gatherings because if you get [COVID-19] at one of them, you won’t be seeing your grandmother at Christmas,” Jenkins said.
She said both Biden and Baker should be “pulling out all the stops to get shots and boosters into people.”
Jenkins criticized Biden’s messaging, which appeared to blame unvaccinated people, rather than addressing issues like improving access to vaccines. The president needs to act faster, she said.
“Tuesday is too late. He should have addressed the country already,” Jenkins said. “Quick upticks in cases are being seen in several states now, including several Southern states.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.