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White House predicts tough winter on rising tide of omicron infections

Cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States are up 98% from last week.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration warned Americans on Wednesday to brace for a challenging couple of weeks in light of the rapidly spreading omicron variant, which has recorded more than 3 million Covid-19 cases in the last week.

“Without a doubt, unequivocally we are dealing with a highly, highly transmissible variant that spreads rapidly,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said at a press conference this morning. “The data are overwhelming in that regard.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients added Wednesday that the pattern is expected to continue over the next few weeks.

“We're going to see cases continue to rise because omicron is a very transmissible variant,” Zients told the public.

Zients pressed that omicron Covid-19 cases appear to be less severe for the fully vaccinated, especially for those with a booster shot. The official urged vaccination for all those who have yet to get a shot, boosters for those who have put off an additional jab, and mask-wearing for all Americans when out in public.

The U.S. is averaging 491,700 cases per day, an increase of about 98% from last week, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Against 63% rise in the average number of hospital admissions over the last week, however, there has only been a 5% uptick in Covid-19 deaths. CDC genomic sequencing suggests omicron cases now represent about 95% of cases in the country, while the remaining 5% were caused by the delta variant.

Fauci warned that the omicron variant is more likely to evade vaccine protection against symptomatic disease and to some extent to severe disease. He pressed, though, that it is less likely that omicron will cause severe disease, citing data collected from South Africa that shows severe disease and death were less prevalent with omicron than earlier variants.

Despite multiple sources of preliminary data indicating a decreased severity with omicron, Fauci nevertheless pressed that there are still many unknowns about chronic long-haul effects.

“The big caveat is we should not be complacent, since the increased transmissibility of the variant, omicron, might be overwritten by the sheer volume of the number of cases — that may be a reduced severity, but could still stress our hospital system,” Fauci said.

Walensky noted that the Food and Drug Administration and CDC have made several updates to Covid-19 recommended measures this week, including authorizing and recommending shortening the window in which people who receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine can get a booster dose from six months to five months.

Zients noted Wednesday that the Biden administration is deploying military doctors, nurses and EMTs to assist local hospital staff in states across the country; has shipped 2.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment in the last two weeks alone to help keep health care workers stay safe; and established free testing locations across the nation.

He also underscored the Biden administration's commitment to keeping American schools open during this time, saying $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funding has been provided to improve schools’ ventilation and help implement social distancing measures. An additional $10 billion has been used to support testing in schools, he said.

“Parents want schools open,” Zients said. “And experts are clear that in person learning is best for kids physical and mental health and further education.” The response coordinator announced that 96% of schools across the country are open for in-person learning.

Meanwhile all children 5 years old and up are eligible for Pfizer vaccination, while vaccine trials are underway for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

On Tuesday, the president announced that the U.S. government will double its purchases of Pfizer’s forthcoming anti-viral pill from 10 million to 20 million treatment courses, the first 10 million of which are expected by the end of June. The pills are designed to decrease hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19.

John Porcari, the current port envoy to the White House Supply Chain taskforce and former deputy secretary of transportation, said at a press conference from the White House Wednesday that the administration is monitoring for Omicron-related disruptions in ports overseas and at home, while prioritizing the movement of medical supplies.

“We have a procedure in place, starting with the place of manufacture of those medical supplies, to identify them early as they're put in containers, make sure those containers are separately identified … [and are] stowed in a position on a ship where they can be the first off and then are prioritized for unloading,” Porcari said Wednesday, noting that the administration is taking aggressive action to diminish any supply chain blockages.

The Food and Drug Administration moved Monday to allow children as young as 12 to receive booster shots of Pfizer. The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet later Wednesday to discuss the FDA’s authorization.

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