The Covid-19 Omicron variant is “raging around the world,” the White House’s top medical adviser said on Sunday as US President Joe Biden prepares to issue “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC that “the real problem” for the US hospital system is that “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated".
The prospect of a winter with a wave of coronavirus infections is a severe reversal from the optimism from Mr Biden about 10 months ago, when he suggested that the country would essentially be back to normal by Christmas.
Mr Biden has been careful not to promise too much, but confidence in the country has been battered by an unrelenting wave of Covid-19 mutations that has left many Americans emotionally exhausted, dispirited and worried about infections.
Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Sunday tried to defend the president’s earlier promise.
“The idea about hoping and having an aspiration to be independent of the virus after a period of time is understandable and reasonable,” he told CNN.
“But the one thing that we know from almost two years’ experience with this virus is that it is really very unpredictable.”
With the threat that rising infections could worsen the supply chain challenges facing the US and fuel inflation, Colorado Governor Jared Polis said Mr Biden should stop talking about vaccination as two shots and a booster, and call it “three doses” needed to maximise protection.
Mr Polis said that with inflation running at a nearly four-decade high, Mr Biden in his remarks on Tuesday about the Omicron variant should show the country how he is addressing the rising cost of goods.
“We can do very concrete things that actually reduce the costs for Americans,” he told NBC.
Mr Polis said that Colorado was cutting vehicle registration fees and making it free to register a new business.
Washington is expecting a series of breakthrough infections with the surge of holiday travellers.
Dr Fauci said most people who have been vaccinated and had a booster should be fine if they took precautions such as wearing masks in crowded settings, including airports.
Mr Biden plans to speak on Tuesday on the status of the fight against Covid-19 and discuss government help for communities in need of assistance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.
She said he would be “issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated.”
Dr Fauci said he expected a record numbers of cases and surges in hospital admissions and deaths.
“Yes, well, unfortunately, I think that is going to happen,” he said.
He said Mr Biden would again urge people to have the booster shot, highlight increased availability of testing, discuss “surge teams” for besieged hospitals and explain how important it is to provide vaccines to the rest of the world.
“The one thing that’s very clear, and there’s no doubt about this, is its extraordinary capability of spreading, its transmissibility capability," Dr Fauci said. "It is just, you know, raging through the world, really.
“And if you look even here in the United States, you have some regions that start off with a few per cent of the isolates that are positive, now going up to 30 per cent, 40 per cent, and some places 50 per cent.”
Ms Psaki’s announcement Saturday on Twitter came after Vice President Kamala Harris told the Los Angeles Times that the Biden administration “didn’t see Delta coming".
I think most scientists – upon whose advice and direction we have relied – didn’t see Delta coming,” Ms Harris said.
“We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”
Her words raised doubts as to the administration’s strategy for addressing the pandemic.
Mr Biden had effectively declared independence from the virus at a White House celebration on July Fourth to mark progress with vaccinations inside the US, yet the global nature of the pandemic meant that the disease could evolve as others around the world waited for immunisation.
Dr Fauci said he saw the variants coming and he thought Ms Harris’s statement “was taken a bit out of context".
He said he believed she was referring to “the extraordinary number of mutations … particularly with Omicron. No one had expected it that much but we were well prepared and expected that we were going to see variants.”