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What the White House is doing as omicron begins to take off in the U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Omicron is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S., according to the CDC. It has spread so rapidly that it now accounts for more than 73% of cases across the country. And in certain regions like New York, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, more than 90% of cases are from omicron. That's adding even more urgency to the calls from public health experts for the Biden administration to do more and faster, especially with hospital systems already strained. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to explain

Hi, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, OK, tomorrow President Biden is going to speak about the omicron surge. Can you just give us an idea of what this administration has been doing so far since omicron was identified?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, since omicron was identified, the administration expanded booster eligibility now to everyone over age 16. It also put some new travel restrictions in place, but there haven't been many policy moves directed at omicron beyond that, let alone public messages that this is serious and things need to change to meet this new challenge. And the messages they have put out have garnered criticism.

CHANG: Wait. Explain that. What kinds of messages have they put out so far?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, during Friday's White House COVID-19 response briefing, the response coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, said, essentially, if you're vaccinated, you've done the right thing. If you're not, you're in for a dark winter. And that has gotten a lot of pushback. A lot of public health experts point to the fact that stigmatizing people has never been a winning public health strategy. Here's Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist from Harvard.

BILL HANAGE: You don't actually get people vaccinated by heckling (ph) them. It requires a shot in the arm, not a wagging finger in the face.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It definitely hit a nerve with parents of young children who are too young to be vaccinated and health care workers who have done the right thing but still have to deal with being overwhelmed with patients. Hanage does say that up until recently, he thinks the administration has done quite well in its response, but it has not managed to step up in the face of this new threat.

CHANG: OK, so what types of actions does he and others you've been talking to think the administration should be taking now?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, there are actually a lot. I talked to Lindsay Wiley. She is a health law professor at American University. And she says yes, several of the bold actions the administration tried to take in the fall, like vaccine mandates, have been blocked so far in the courts. But there are things the White House could do now without any help or funding from Congress.

LINDSAY WILEY: One big step they could take now would be to free up access to rapid tests and, I think, also higher quality masks and pressure manufacturers to increase supply, lower the price.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She also says CDC has a lot of power with its guidance. It could make clear what to do if you test positive with omicron, how long exactly you have to isolate or quarantine - also, guidance on what to do if you can't find a rapid test, which is a situation a lot of us are in right now or if you don't have very many, how you can ration the tests you do have. Wiley says all of this would really help not only everyday people but also institutions and local health departments that are scrambling to figure out logistically what to do with a virus that spreads this fast.

CHANG: OK. Well, President Biden is scheduled to speak tomorrow. And I'm curious. You know, what kinds of things are you hearing from your sources about what they want to hear from the president?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, he's expected to encourage people to use the tools we have. Wear masks. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. There are indications he'll also address the rapid at-home test problems we've been talking about. Hanage told me in terms of tone, he hopes the administration drops the message that if you're unvaccinated, you're in trouble. And also, he says he hopes this step up with more communication. He tweeted over the weekend, where the ever-loving hell is CDC on messaging?

HANAGE: The situation is changing day to day at just such a remarkable rate that we really need somebody to just, you know, steady the ship.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So he suggests daily briefings would be a good place to start. Right now briefings are still twice a week and only about half an hour long.

CHANG: Wow, daily briefings - back to the days of the early pandemic. Well, you know, this whole time, Selena, we've been talking about reaction on the federal level. What about policy changes at the state level?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, there are only a handful of states that currently have indoor mask mandates. D.C. just announced today that it's bringing its mask mandate back, but there haven't been a flood of changes yet. I'm starting to hear for calls for even more restrictive measures, like limiting the size of gatherings to try to slow things down. The National Governors Association told me that governors have a call with the White House COVID response team tomorrow, so we'll have to see if the White House signals to states that new restrictions need to be put in place and how states respond.

CHANG: That is NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.