Feds Go on Offense Ahead of Potential Omicron Spread in US

Damian McNamara, MA

December 03, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Deploying more emergency medical response teams, reimbursing healthcare providers to counsel Medicaid patients about vaccinations, and an education campaign to stress the importance of immunization are three immediate actions the White House COVID-19 Response Team is taking as winter and the possible spread of the Omicron variant approach.

"We are actively taking steps to stay ahead of Omicron," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said at a Friday press briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team and public health officials.

"We are equipped and prepared to fight the Omicron variant head on," she said.

CDC staff already are working with state and local health officials to investigate and conduct contact tracing among the initial cases of the Omicron variant identified in California, Minnesota, New York, and elsewhere across the country.

In the meantime, "We are urging providers to get all eligible Americans boosted right away," Walensky said.

The CDC also is supporting efforts to enhance and optimize genomic sequencing to track the continued emergence of Omicron. Furthermore, she said, "We are continuously monitoring vaccine effectiveness in our real world surveillance studies."

It should be "a matter of days to weeks until we'll know more about transmission and severity of the disease," Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the briefing, reiterating the timeline for the essential science and clinical work to be completed.

Creating More Emergency Response Teams

As the scientists work behind the scenes on all things Omicron, the task force announced three specific actions the government will start today in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The three-prong plan centers on expanding teams of emergency volunteers to help treat COVID-19 patients around the country, reimbursing doctors for COVID-19 vaccine counseling, and launching a public education campaign to encourage more eligible Americans to get a booster shot.

Ordering Reinforcements

On December 2, President Joe Biden announced $20 million to strengthen the national Medical Reserve Corps and provide an additional 60 emergency medical response teams to support hospitals and healthcare facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients now and in the coming months.

"The Medical Reserve Corps has dedicated more than [a] million hours to their local COVID-19 response, often working tirelessly at under-resourced health centers and often without much recognition," US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, said during the briefing.

"This funding will provide the support they need to continue their heroic work."

Funding Family Counseling

A second step in the plan is to support children and families regarding COVID-19 vaccines for kids. "We want to help more parents make informed decisions about vaccinations," Murthy said. "That's why Medicaid will begin to pay health care providers to talk to families about the importance of vaccines for kids."

Murthy said the move is particularly important because Medicaid provides insurance to about 40% of US children and represents a significant source of healthcare coverage for children of color.

"This support will help more families get connected to the personalized, trusted medical advice that they need and deserve," Murthy added.

Promoting More Booster Shots

Even though an estimated 41 million Americans already have received a SARS-CoV-2 booster shot, "we know that there are still millions of [more] Americans" who are eligible for this added protection, Murthy said.

Fauci was encouraged by the scientific data so far that "strongly suggests that boosters will give you cross-protection against a number of variants." Evidence also shows gains in immune system memory B and T cells after a booster shot.

"Although we haven't proven it yet, there's every reason to believe that if you get vaccinated and boosted that you would have at least some degree of cross-protection, very likely against severe disease — even against the Omicron variant," Fauci said.

Because some people may not know they are eligible, may be confused about the boosters, or lack the time to get a booster — such as Americans working multiple jobs — government officials created a booster information toolkit to help disseminate more information to people where they live, Murthy said.

New educational material will be available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and many other languages. Murthy said the potentially life-saving information will be shared in many formats, including email, through phone banking, text messages, podcasts, social media, postcards, leaflets, and letters — "just about everything short of carrier pigeons," he said.

"We're also reaching out to communities of color and native communities by hosting health fairs, webinars, and virtual town halls," Murthy said.

Biggest Vaccination Day Since May

A total 2.2 million Americans received a COVID-19 immunization on December 2, including more than 1 million booster shots.

"That's our highest single-day total since May," said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. "This is important progress in the president's plan to combat COVID-19 and confront the Omicron variant."

Hoping to build on such momentum, he added, "Vaccines clearly remain our most important tool. If you were fully vaccinated before June, it's time for you to go get your booster. If you're unvaccinated, go get your first shot today. And if your kids are five years or older and not yet vaccinated, get them the protection of the vaccine as well."

Many Questions Remain

There is still a lot to learn about Omicron at this point. "We really don't know what's going to happen or how well it is going to compete or not compete with Delta," Fauci said, for example.

In light of the considerable unknowns, the government is working with the three major vaccine manufacturers on contingency plans. This just-in-case initiative also features three parts.

One portion calls for increasing supply of the existing vaccines as we head into winter.

A second action is to develop a bivalent vaccine, one that would potentially provide protection against both the "ancestral" and new variant strains of SARS-CoV-2.

A third option, and one the manufacturers are reportedly working on now, is to create variant-specific versions of their vaccines.

Stay Tuned

The officials at the briefing acknowledged the high level of concern circulating around the Omicron variant and its many unknowns.

"Yes, Omicron is concerning and yes we're still working toward better understanding it," Murthy said. "But there is enough progress behind us to feel both cautious and hopeful. We are on the right track and we're learning more."

"I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of staying vigilant," Walensky said. "There is still a lot to learn about Omicron and we will be transparent and share the updated science with you as soon as it becomes available."

Based on a December 3, 2021, press briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials.

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.

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