President Joe Biden has pledged his government’s support to states grappling with a surge in coronavirus infections as the highly contagious Omicron variant continues to spread across the United States.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with governors on Monday, Biden warned that rising cases could overwhelm some hospitals, particularly in areas where a high proportion of people are not vaccinated.
“Omicron is a source of concern, but it should not be a source of panic,” he said. “We’re prepared and we know what it takes to save lives, protect people and keep schools and businesses open. We just have to stay focused and continue to work together.”
Biden added that his message to state leaders was simple: “If you need something, say something and we are going to have your back any way we can.”
US health officials said last week that the Omicron variant had become the dominant strain in the country, accounting for a majority of new infections, as state and local leaders mulled reinstating restrictions to stem its spread.
Many have also renewed calls for people to get COVID-19 jabs, including booster shots, while Biden promised to distribute 500 million free, at-home coronavirus tests starting in January, among other measures aimed at combatting Omicron.
But with many Americans travelling and gathering with family and friends over the holidays, “the fear is that this will get worse before it gets better”, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said, reporting from Washington, DC.
Halkett said that record seven-day infection numbers have been reported in several states, including New York, Hawaii, Delaware, and New Jersey, to rival rates “not seen since the early days of the pandemic”.
“This is a grave concern to public health officials because what this means is there’s a strain on hospitals,” she said.
“And what we’re seeing in some states is record number of hospitalisations for children, particularly in the age group of under five, who are not eligible for vaccinations in the United States. The concern is where this is headed because we’re in the midst of a holiday period.”
On Monday, US airlines cancelled about 800 flights, the fourth straight day of cancellations. That was on top of more than 3,000 flight cancellations during the Christmas holiday weekend, typically a peak time for travel for Americans.
Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci urged people to avoid large New Year gatherings to reduce the spike in infections.
“When we are talking about a New Year’s Eve party … I would recommend strongly [to] stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,” Fauci, who is also Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN.
In a separate interview with MSNBC, Fauci said the country should “seriously” consider a vaccine mandate for domestic travel. “When you make vaccination a requirement, that’s another incentive to get more people vaccinated,” he said.
The US currently mandates that most foreign nationals travelling into the country be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but has not instituted one for domestic travel.
More than 204 million people are considered fully vaccinated in the US, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while 64.5 million have received a booster dose. But tens of millions of people remain unvaccinated across the country.
While some parts of the US have put vaccine mandates in place amid the surge in cases, including New York City, where private employers must now mandate coronavirus vaccines for their employees, such moves often have been met with staunch opposition.
An effort by the Biden administration to order workers at private companies and healthcare employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, for example, has spurred a string of legal challenges. The case is expected to be taken up by the US Supreme Court next month.
Meanwhile, Biden on Monday promised to ease a coronavirus testing shortage, while acknowledging that his government’s efforts have not gone far enough. Long lines have stretched outside some testing locations in recent weeks in parts of the US.
“Seeing how tough it was for some folks to get a test this weekend shows that we have more work to do,” Biden said as he joined the call with the group of state governors. “It’s clearly not enough. If we’d known, we would’ve gone harder and quicker if we could have.”
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