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President urges vaccination, boosters as cases of omicron variant emerge

Little research has been done on the omicron variant of the coronavirus, but President Biden assured the public Thursday that they can look to vaccine manufacturers for contingency plans if needed.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Reiterating that he sees the presence of the omicron variant as “cause for concern but not panic,” President Joe Biden rolled out a new plan to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus Thursday heading into the winter months.

“It's here, but we have the best tools, the best vaccines in the world,” the president said of the omicron variant Thursday at a press conference. At the time of his afternoon speech, two cases of Covid-19 linked to the new variant had been detected inside the United States.

The first, in California, was detected by the San Francisco department of public health Wednesday in a fully vaccinated traveler who had returned to the U.S. from South Africa on Nov. 22. Within the day, the second was found in Minnesota in a man who had recently traveled to New York City.

It remains to be seen whether omicron can spread more easily than past variants, and how resistant it may be to the existing vaccines on offer.

The new strain was first detected in South Africa and Botswana last week, and the World Health Organization classified it on Friday as a variant of concern, labeling it with the Greek letter omicron. On Monday, the United Nations health agency warned it poses a “very high” risk. The variant has around 50 mutations, far more than previous Covid-19 variants, which could make it more unpredictable than past versions of the virus. Since the strain was first reported last week, its emergence has sparked alarm around the globe and prompted a slew of countries – including the United States and European nations — to ban flights from southern Africa.

Explaining that part of his administration’s multipronged winter plan includes booster shots for all adults and encouraging vaccinations for school-aged children 5 and up, Biden pressed the importance of vaccinations Thursday.

“The best thing to do is get fully vaccinated, and then get your booster shot when you're eligible,” Biden said. He encouraged the roughly 100 million eligible for booster shots, who have not yet gotten one, to make their appointments as soon as possible, while calling on private companies to fall in line with the federal government and provide paid time off to employees for receiving boosters.

“No one should have to choose between a paycheck and get an additional protection for a booster shot,” Biden said, also encouraging private companies to implement vaccination mandates or testing programs.

The president further noted that he had utilized the Defense Production Act to increase production of rapid tests and rapid home test kits in the United States, in order to make testing “more available affordable, convenient” and allow Americans to seek reimbursement from their insurance providers for rapid, over-the-counter diagnostic tests. Those not covered by private insurance will be able to access home test kits at more than 20,000 federally supported free testing sites around the country, he said.

Extending the requirement to wear a mask on airplanes, rail travel and public transportation

Biden added that to protect all Americans while traveling, he is extending masking requirements on airplanes, trains and public transportation and is clamping down on predeparture testing protocols for all incoming international travelers, who will now be mandated to test within one day of their flight to the U.S..

Biden indicated Thursday that his administration does not think additional measures, such as modified vaccines, are necessary at this time.

“But so that we're prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for other vaccines, more boosters, and also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available without cutting corners for safety, to get such vaccines reviewed and renewed and approved,” Biden said, using the acronyms for the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also expressed that the United States will continue to send vaccines to other countries in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, not just across the 50 states but worldwide. The U.S. has currently committed to donating 1.2 billion doses to other countries, providing 3 doses globally for every one shot given at home. 

Biden expressed the importance of this action as the original Covid-19 virus, the delta variant, and the new omicron variant have all originated abroad.

“There's not a single vaccine dose America ever sends to the rest of the world will ever come at the expense of any American,” Biden stressed. “I'll always make sure that our people are protected first. But vaccinating the world is not just a moral obligation that we have. In my view, it's how we protect Americans.”

Before Thanksgiving, The New York Times reported that the United States was averaging about 95,000 new cases a day. The CDC has predicted that 304,000 to 810,000 new cases are likely to be reported in the following week.

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