WASHINGTON — President Biden received his second coronavirus booster shot on Wednesday, sitting for the jab after delivering remarks from the White House about the need for additional congressional pandemic-related funding before the new BA.2 subvariant triggers another wave of infection.
“It didn’t hurt a bit,” he said of the jab into his shoulder. A second booster for adults over the age of 50 had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration the day before.
A lack of funds for masks, vaccines and therapeutics could, on the other hand, harm the nation’s ability to respond to a new coronavirus surge, Biden argued in Wednesday’s remarks.
“If we fail to invest, we leave ourselves vulnerable,” Biden said a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that BA.2, which is at least 30% more transmissible than the original BA.1 strain of Omicron, had become dominant in the United States. “We can’t wait until we find ourselves in the midst of another surge to act. It will be too late.”
Earlier this month, an effort to include $15 billion in new coronavirus funds fell apart, leaving the White House frustrated and pleading for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to reach an agreement on where the funds should come from.
“This is critically important funding. The stakes are very real — and very high,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said at a briefing after Biden’s remarks. “We don’t want to be caught flat-footed.”
In recent days, the White House has repeatedly described what it calls the “severe consequences” of Congress’s failure to approve new COVID funding: a shortage of booster doses; no more free monoclonal antibody treatments; no additional oral antiviral pills beyond the 20 million already secured; no ability to purchase promising new antivirals; no money to secure preventive treatments for immunocompromised Americans; scaled-back testing and surveillance capacity to identify emerging variants; and less support for global vaccination efforts to end the pandemic once and for all.
Biden has lately urged a return to normal, which on Wednesday he said had been possible only because of the investments his administration had made in the distribution of vaccines, high-quality masks and at-home diagnostic tests.
“We’re now in a new moment in this pandemic,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that COVID-19 is over. It means that COVID-19 no longer controls our lives.”
In recent days, several high-ranking staffers — including press secretary Jen Psaki and her top deputy, Karine Jean-Pierre — have tested positive for COVID-19, in seeming recognition of that fact.
The BA.2 subvariant does not appear to be more virulent than either the Omicron or Delta strains of the coronavirus. Still, a significant spike in infections or hospitalizations could set back the administration’s efforts to move beyond the pandemic as a source of preoccupation.
Efforts at a funding agreement have not met with success so far, though Democrats remain hopeful.
“This isn’t partisan; it’s medicine,” Biden said in his Wednesday remarks, specifically referencing shortfalls in the stockpile of therapeutics the White House has said could result in avoidable deaths. That argument just as readily applies to efforts to stockpile vaccines.
Biden also unveiled a new website, COVID.gov, which he described as “one-stop shop where anyone in America can find what they need to navigate the virus,” such as vaccination centers, test-to-treat locations and mask distribution sites.
BA.2 has triggered a precipitous rise in COVID cases in many European countries that were only just starting to recover from this winter’s enormous wave. Hospitalizations are ticking up as well.
As BA.2 increases in prevalence across the U.S., leading models predict that COVID cases will reverse course and start climbing nationally in early April. In states where BA.2 is already dominant, like New York, cases have already increased 65% during the past two weeks.
It’s unclear whether BA.2 will hit America as hard as Europe for a number of reasons, including the coming of warmer weather, widespread immunity from recent Omicron infections and a lower baseline of infections to start from. Yet experts also say the U.S. is far less prepared and far more vulnerable than European counterparts like the U.K. if BA.2 does take off — and the situation is getting more precarious by the day.
Partly, this is about vaccination. Just 66% of the U.S. population has received two shots; just 30% has received three shots. The U.S. ranks 65th and 62nd, respectively, on these two crucial metrics, neither of which has budged in months. Among those who need protection the most — seniors — the U.S. has a booster rate of just 67%. In the U.K. and many European countries, that number is 90% or more. Studies show that without a booster, even “fully vaccinated” seniors are 10% to 20% less protected against Omicron hospitalization and death. Millions of U.S. seniors remain entirely unvaccinated as well.
At the same time, America’s lack of preparedness is increasingly becoming a money problem.
On Wednesday, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration stopped accepting claims for testing and treatment for uninsured patients, citing “lack of sufficient funds.” On April 6, the agency will stop reimbursing providers for vaccinating uninsured Americans — a group that numbered more than 31 million in 2020, according to federal data, and were disproportionately lower-income or people of color.
As a result, molecular testing will now cost uninsured Americans between $100 and $200 in most instances, a prohibitive expense that will prevent many from getting tested at all — further obscuring the virus’s spread. During this winter’s Omicron surge, the U.S. provided free tests to uninsured Americans at a rate of a half million per month, according to the American Clinical Laboratory Association.
The same goes for vaccination efforts, which are winding down across the country due to dwindling interest and funding — just as experts say boosters are becoming even more essential for protecting vulnerable Americans, whose immunity from prior shots is starting to wane.