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Biden plans to expand testing and vaccination to take on the omicron variant

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the omicron variant surges around the world and across the U.S., President Biden addressed the nation today. He talked through his administration's plans to expand testing and vaccination, and he reassured Americans that while things may be bleak, the country is better off now than at the beginning of the pandemic.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

SHAPIRO: Andy Slavitt is a former senior adviser to the White House pandemic response team under President Biden, and he joins us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDY SLAVITT: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: There were many elements of the president's message today, and I want to start with testing. Biden says the government has ordered half a billion tests to arrive in January, and he got a little bit defensive when he was asked whether the government was caught off guard.

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BIDEN: The omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.

SHAPIRO: But even a month ago, virologists were alarmed about the fast spread in South Africa. And for a long time they've been warning about the potential for more contagious strains to come along. So do you think this new supply is going to reach people fast enough to solve the testing problem quickly enough?

SLAVITT: Well, I think in certain parts of the country, demand is going to outstrip supply not just for testing, but it already is for - even for things like booster shots and hospitals and staffing. And so, you know, the good news and bad news of omicron is it's going to come in fast, and it likely will go out fast.

SHAPIRO: That's the hope, anyway.

SLAVITT: That's the hope, anyway. That's good from one perspective, but from the other perspective, all of that demand at one time is very tough for the system to handle. And in places like New York and other kind of mostly blue areas, where demands for tests are higher, I think it's going to be a challenge. You know...

SHAPIRO: And...

SLAVITT: The administration's put - sorry. Go ahead.

SHAPIRO: And so as President Biden announces all of these steps, from testing to boosters to, you know, ramping up health care, I mean, is it going to meet the need in time? Or is it going to respond after we've already seen the spike over the next few weeks?

SLAVITT: Yeah. Well, there are a ton of details here. And I think what you heard today was, you know, FEMA - more support from FEMA to build hospital beds, more military physicians, more vaccinators, 10,000 more testing sites. And, you know, it really is kind of a warlike effort. You know, in September, they put about $3 billion into manufacturing more tests, and I think everybody wishes that there were more tests available. But this, to me, feels like a mobilization that, you know, is going to - if you're reading it right, it's going to be - the first few weeks of January are going to be tough.

SHAPIRO: There was a similar mobilization earlier in the pandemic. The president announced today that there would be steps to relieve the pressure on health care workers. He would send military medical professionals to help where it's needed most.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We've already started moving military - excuse me - medical teams. They've already landed in Wisconsin and Indiana this week.

SHAPIRO: In the early days of the pandemic during the Trump administration, there were pop-up health care centers and convention centers and naval ships, some of which ended up not being widely used. Do you think the same thing might happen here?

SLAVITT: Well, that would be good. That'd be a good scenario, Ari, if we ended up overestimating the need for hospitals. Right now we don't really know exactly how severe people - illness people are getting yet. It's a little - still a little bit too early to tell. So - but they have to be prepared, and I think sending more staff and personnel is what the hospitals are asking for.

SHAPIRO: I'm struck by your saying they have to be prepared. And it feels like being prepared would have been doing this a month ago - right? - before this holiday surge, before people go to visit friends and family and travel for the holidays, in some cases not having been able to get a test to know whether they're carrying asymptomatic COVID with them.

SLAVITT: Yeah. Well, look. I think, you know, they've opened up tens of thousands of free vaccine - free testing sites. They've approved eight at-home tests. They've invested $3 billion in scaling. And I think you heard the president say that even with all of that, if it wasn't for omicron, they would have felt better and that the race of how much is coming at once is going to be hard to handle. I do think you're right. In certain parts of the country, the demand will just be too overwhelming. It'll be very hard to plan for.

SHAPIRO: Was the president right to tell vaccinated people to go out and enjoy the holidays with just a few precautions? This runs counter to the advice that the World Health Organization is giving. Yesterday they urged people to cancel holiday plans. The head of the organization said an event canceled is better than a life canceled. That's different from the president's message today.

SLAVITT: It was a really interesting theme. And as you said, he was pointing out all the ways in which things are different from March 2020, principally in two ways. One is that kids should still be able to go to school. Secondly, if you're vaccinated, you should still be able to enjoy your holidays with precautions.

And, you know, I think it's in part what Americans want to hear, but I think it's also in part a recognition of the fact that there is a lot of people who take precautions and are - and they don't want to be - have their lives determined by people who choose not to get vaccinated or take precautions. And then if you're going to be around vaccinated people, you are basically safe. And, you know, you - and you might get a little bit of a cold, but that's different than something much more serious. And I think that's what he was trying to tell us.

SHAPIRO: We've been talking about the challenges in responding to this fast-moving variant. From a medical perspective, what do you think the administration's No. 1 goal needs to be in the next few weeks as people travel and meet with family and friends for the holidays and cases are spiking? What should the administration be trying to accomplish right now?

SLAVITT: I think we should be focusing almost entirely our effort on the most severe cases because there are going to be a lot of asymptomatic cases. This is going to spread far and wide. And a large number of people, because of their vaccination status, are just not going to be sick. And so taking your eye off of the cases number and having your eye focused on how filled up are these ICUs getting and how much can we prevent ICUs from getting filled up and from the staff from getting overworked really is what it will take to get through this. With any luck, we'll be at the end of January, and cases will be on the decline.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, I know you spoke with a group of scientists about what to expect next year with the understanding that just about everyone thought 2021 would go in like a lion and out like a lamb. And that forecast was totally wrong. In a couple sentences, what's your outlook for 2022?

SLAVITT: Well, look. I mean, it's very hard to believe people who are going to tell us that they understand what's going to happen over the course of the next year. There's a very good scenario possible, which is that omicron is more mild and establishes a good level of protection for people. And we can hope for that. But no matter what happens, we have all the tools we need if we - all we have to do is use them.

SHAPIRO: Andy Slavitt is a former senior adviser to President Biden's White House pandemic response team and author of the book "Preventable." Thank you very much.

SLAVITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Sarah Handel