Analysis: Rising cases, Omicron highlight holes in Biden's COVID strategy, experts say

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Dec 20 (Reuters) - Amid a new surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays, President Joe Biden is drawing criticism from health experts, who are calling for more urgency, testing, masking and global vaccine sharing.

Biden, a Democrat, took office in January pledging to get the coronavirus under control. He presided over a massive vaccine rollout and passed a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, who downplayed the pandemic's severity, dismissed many preventive measures and undermined health experts.

Eleven months into Biden's term, however, the United States has recorded 800,000 COVID-19 deaths, over 300,000 of those on his watch, the highest total and per capita of the Group of Seven (G70 wealthiest nations. As the Omicron variant bears down and people gather for the holiday season, hospitals in some areas are seeing record high numbers of COVID-19 patients.

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Biden's vaccination push has led to 65.2 percent of the eligible population being fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Republican-led opposition means that figure is less than 50% on some states. Less than 30% of the population has an additional booster shot believed necessary to protect against Omicron.

The administration needs to push mask wearing, increase pressure on companies to bring down the cost of tests, share technology on vaccines globally and secure more funding to fight the pandemic on a broad scale, health experts said. Many said the White House had let such measures slide while focusing on getting people inoculated.

"Where's the leadership that asks for national sacrifice at a time of emergency?" said Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University. Biden should "get on TV tonight and say: 'I want you to mask up.'" he said.

The White House has repeatedly said it has the tools to fight Omicron without shutting schools and businesses, while promising more free tests and widespread booster distribution.

Biden will speak on Tuesday about new plans, including driving home his message to unvaccinated Americans to get a shot and for those who are vaccinated to get a booster. read more

Broadway theaters, universities and professional sports leagues are already canceling or postponing events, reflecting the reality of a new COVID-19 wave.

UGLY U.S. POLITICS ON COVID

Biden's toughest challenge fighting the pandemic has been political.

Despite the abundance of free and safe vaccines, misinformation spread through social media platforms and pushback on health measures, driven largely by Republican politicians and conservative media, have thwarted his efforts to persuade pockets of the U.S. population to get vaccinated.

The administration vowed early on to crack down on private companies spreading vaccine-related misinformation, but it persists.

"I think they underestimated the fact that the anti-vaccine movement was first and foremost a political movement," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. A leading killer of young and middle-aged adults in the United States is "anti-science aggression from the far right," he said.

The White House has sought to depoliticize the issue, sending health officials onto Fox News, even as the cable channel's conservative commentators sow doubt about vaccines and masks.

Despite their sometimes significant differences, the White House sees Fox News as an important outlet to disseminate public health information, including on Biden’s Omicron strategy, a White House official said. The president has sparred with Republican governors whose policies clash with his. More recently, his rhetoric has been less political, focused directly on urging people to get a shot. On Thursday, he sounded a grim warning, predicting a winter of "severe illness and death" for those who are unvaccinated.

TEST, MASK SUPPLIES AN ISSUE

Biden said earlier this month the government would require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests and make 50 million tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.

Critics call that insufficient.

"There's more uninsured Americans than that, and what we were only supposed to take one rapid test ever? These policies are completely inadequate," said Angela Rasmussen, an American virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

Surging demand for COVID-19 tests from U.S. employers bringing employees back to work exacerbated a nationwide shortage of rapid tests in the fall, driving up costs for state and local testing programs.

The recent spike in cases has led to long testing lines across the country and left Americans scrambling to secure at-home tests at pharmacies and online. The White House said there are tens of thousands of free testing sites across the country, the supply of at-home tests has quadrupled, and a dozen new rapid tests have been authorized to come to the market.

"We’re working with governors and state and local health officials to add more capacity," a White House official said. "We’re also working with manufacturers to expand capacity."

Former CDC Director Tom Frieden told Reuters the administration also needs to step up the promotion of mask wearing and that subsidizing the costs of masks or distributing them could help.

"Masks ... and vaccination are by far the two most important interventions, and it's still far too hard for someone to find out the quality of a mask they're buying, to get masks at a reasonable price. It's still too much of a Wild West out there in terms of the market," he said.

The Omicron variant that is prolonging the global crisis may not be the last, as vast majorities of people in less-developed nations remain unvaccinated, giving the virus room to mutate.

Experts said the Biden administration could have done more to get vaccines to the rest of the world, protecting other populations and Americans as well.

"There's been sort of an ongoing battle with the White House to do more," said Gonsalves, noting the new Omicron variant came from abroad.

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Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons

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