Press Briefing by White House COVID- 19 Response Team and Public Health Officials 4 December

The White House

Via Teleconference

11:10 A.M. EST

MR. ZIENTS: Good morning, and thanks for joining us.

Today, we’ll start with Drs. Walensky and Fauci for an update on the Omicron variant.

Over to you, Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Good morning. I’d like to start by walking you through today’s data. The current seven-day daily average of cases is about 86,400. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 6,300 per day. And the seven-day average of daily deaths is at about 860 per day.

I’m going to focus my comments today on the state of the Omicron variant.

Around the world, we’ve seen cases in about 40 countries. And on Wednesday, the first confirmed case was detected in the United States, in California.

Since then, additional states including Minnesota, Colorado, Hawaii, and New York have reported cases. And we are working closely with state and local public health authorities to investigate suspect cases in other states.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, we are prepared and ready to rapidly recognize the Omicron variant.

The first case reported by the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health was identified quickly through genomic sequencing conducted at the University of California San Francisco, a laboratory that is funded by CDC using resources from the American Rescue Plan.

And the sequences from the first three U.S. cases were confirmed at the CDC within hours after their detection by the states.

The rapid turnaround and sequence analysis is an example of the importance of our investments this year to expand genomic sequencing across the country, and to build a system that is prepared to swiftly respond to new and emerging COVID variants.

Once these cases were identified, CDC staff began working with state and local public health authorities to do contact tracing and investigation.

Across the country, public health departments are looking at sequence data, at travel histories and epidemiologic indicators, at diagnostic data to identify possible cases of Omicron.

CDC will continue our robust collaborations with state and local public health authorities to identify cases that — as they emerge, to support contact tracing of those newly diagnosed cases of Omicron, to encourage post-arrival testing of international travelers, and to assist with all implementation of prevention strategies.

We are equipped and prepared to fight the Omicron variant head on. We’re actively taking steps to stay ahead of Omicron.

Yesterday, CDC issued a health advisory through our Health Alert Network to provide recommendations to public health departments and jurisdictions, laboratories, healthcare providers, and the public in light of the new Omicron variant and what actions are needed now, including testing protocols and guidance for cased investigations.

Notably, we are urging providers to get all eligible Americans boosted right away.

Additionally, CDC is providing support to enhance and streamline genomic sequencing nationally, and is expanding surveillance of international travelers.

Our CDC laboratories are working in collaboration with public health and academic partners, and across agencies to understand the science of this new variant, assessing its susceptibility to therapeutics and vaccines.

We are continuously monitoring vaccine effectiveness in our real-world surveillance studies and publicly reporting those data. And we are doing an in-depth investigation of the first initial cases of Omicron so that we can understand transmission and severity of Omicron disease.

I know that the news is focused on Omicron, but we should remember that 99.9 percent of cases in the country right now are from the Delta variant.

Delta continues to drive cases across the country, especially in those who are unvaccinated.

So, here’s what’s important to know: Our recommendations for protecting against COVID remain the same, regardless of the variant.

Our best protection against COVID-19 is our proven layered prevention strategies. This includes getting vaccinated if you have not already and getting a booster dose if you are eligible, along with wearing a mask in public indoor areas, frequently washing your hands, improving ventilation, physical distancing, and increased testing to slow transmission of the virus.

I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of staying vigilant. 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.

As you have heard me say earlier this week, we are in a far better position now than we were at this time last year.

Not only do we now have knowledge and experience from addressing other variants, such as Delta, we also have far more tools with proven prevention methods and more treatment options to fight the virus than we had at this time last year.

Thank you. I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. What I’d like to do now is to spend a short amount of time on discussing the potential role of our boosting in addressing the Omicron variant.

If I could have the first slide, please.

Just to orient people — when we always talk about spike proteins and variants — on the left-hand part of the slide is the spike protein of the Delta. And on the right, is the Omicron.

You see those red numbers and letters on the left with Delta. And the thing that is striking right off is the fact that those represent amino acid substitutions as a result of mutations. And notice how many more there are on the Omicron side.

So, just to orient you, what that means — for example, if you look on the left, with Delta, on the very top, you see T478K. All that means is that there is a amino acid substitution of a threonine is substituted by a lysine. The “T” is the threonine, the “K” is the lysine. And on and on it goes throughout the spike protein.

So — next slide — Dr. Walensky has mentioned to you that we have many unanswered questions and we are looking into them. And in real-time, at a matter of days to weeks, we’ll know more about transmission, immune evasion, and severity of disease.

But what can we do right now?

Next slide.

There are a number of things that we can do. Dr. Walensky mentioned several of them. I want to focus just for a minute or two on two of those – namely, getting vaccinated and getting boosted.

Next slide.

So, let’s take Look at the data when it comes to another variant — in fact, the variant that we are dealing with right now in our own country — with Delta.

In September of this year, unvaccinated people in the United States had almost a six percent increased risk of getting infected and getting COVID-19 compared to fully vaccinated, and about 11-fold increased risk of being hospitalized, and a 14 increase of dying when you compare individuals who are fully vaccinated versus unvaccinated. And this is Delta.

Next slide.

However, in vitro studies now indicate that booster shots markedly increased the antibody titers against a wide range of variants.

Next slide.

So, if you look at this, right now remember we were all vaccinated — those who were vaccinated — against the ancestral, or “Wuhan,” strain.

Yet, when you look on this slide of the effective booster, in the light blue, in younger individuals, is what the level of antibody titer is prior to the third shot boost. It was 55.

Twenty-eight days after the boost — in this case, a third shot of the mRNA-1273 — it goes way up to 872 — much higher than the actual peak following the second dose.

And this is reflected also in individuals greater than 65, as shown on the right-hand part of the slide.

Next slide.

The same holds true for the Pfizer BioNTech. And on this, you see, again — on the left — one month after the second dose, take the blue column. There’s 241 as the 50 percent serum neutralization.

One month after the third dose, it goes way up to 1321.

And then when you go to the elderly, it goes from 123 to 1495.

Next slide.

One of the things we now know, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent, that when you get a high level of antibody — and as shown in this slide in an animal model, done by Drs. Seder and Corbett here at the NIH — when you look at the third dose, you increase the levels of neutralizing antibodies against all the variants.

And this also has an increase in levels of memory B cells and T cells, which strongly suggest that boosters will give you cross-protection against a number of variants.

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.

And so, in the final slide, my message reflects that of Dr. Walensky: Get vaccinated and get boosted.

You can visit Vaccines.gov, you can text your ZIP Code to that number there, or you can call and find out where vaccines and boosters are available.

Back to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fauci.

So, as you just heard from both doctors and as the President said yesterday, the Omicron variant is a cause for concern, not panic.

Nearly 200 million Americans have done their part by getting fully vaccinated. And we have the tools and the know-how we need to keep people safe.

Vaccines clearly remain our most important tool, and the doctors’ message is crystal clear: If you are 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.

Join your fellow Americans who are rolling up their sleeves.

Just yesterday, we reported getting 2.2 million shots in arms, including over 1 million booster shots — 2.2 million shots. That’s our highest single-day total since May.

This is important progress, and the President’s plan to combat COVID-19 and confront the Omicron variant this winter uses all of the tools at our disposal to build on this progress.

Yesterday, the President outlined five areas where we are taking action.

First, getting the roughly 100 million eligible Americans their booster shots.

Second, helping more parents vaccinate their kids and keeping our schools open.

Third, making at-home tests free to Americans.

Fourth, increasing surge response teams to support communities with rising cases.

And fifth, accelerating our efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world and strengthening travel rules for people coming into the United States.

The President’s plan is robust. We’re using every tool at our disposal with more than a dozen specific actions that will get Americans maximum protection as we head into the winter months, and keep people safe, schools open, and our economy growing.

Today, we want to provide additional detail on three specific actions in our fight against the virus this winter.

First, launching a public education campaign for boosters.

Second, reimbursing doctors for COVID-19 vaccine counseling.

And third, expanding teams of emergency volunteers to help treat COVID patients around the country.

Let me turn to Dr. Murthy to provide more on these three actions.

Doctor.

SURGEON GENERAL MURTHY: Well, thank you so much, Jeff. And it’s good to be with all of you again today.

In the midst of all the uncertainty around Omicron, what you’re hearing from Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fauci is that there is a global community of scientists that are doing as much as possible as quickly as possible to learn more about the variant. We are part of that global community, and we are optimistic that we will learn much more in the weeks ahead.

And as we learn more, our administration is doubling down on its support for communities that need it the most. Today I want to talk about three ways that we’re providing that support: through boosters, through children’s vaccines, and through medical response teams across the country.

First is, so far, 41 million Americans have gotten a booster shot. But we know that there are still millions of Americans more who need to get a booster shot. And so, as we think about this, we recognize several things: Number one, there are still people who don’t know that they’re eligible. Number two, there are seniors who may not realize the benefit of the boosters. Number three, there are also just people working two or three jobs who haven’t had time to get boosted.

And that’s why we’re working to meet Americans right where they are with information about booster shots and easy access to get them. To do that, we’ve created a booster information toolkit and distributed it far and wide. And we’re gearing up to share versions in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and Russian.

We’re doing this because we want to make sure that vaccine information is available in the language that people understand best. We’re also reaching out to communities of color and Native communities by hosting health fairs, webinars, and virtual town halls.

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