WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s message to the American people on confronting omicron comes with a heavy dose of cajoling, while some other countries are issuing edicts to their citizens as the new coronavirus variant takes over with breathtaking speed.
America's polarized reaction to vaccines and masks, and its system of government in which states have broad authority over health matters, limit some of the options Biden can exercise — at least without igniting political flareups that could distract from the urgency of his message.
“What we have learned is politics matters,” said Jen Kates, who directs global health work for the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “You would have expected us to weather the storm, and we haven’t.”
“We are a big country, we are a complex country, and on every issue partisans are divided,” she said. “That, coupled with local control, and we end up with a disjointed response.”
In France, Prime Minister Jean Castex has banned public concerts and fireworks displays at New Year’s celebrations while calling on people to avoid large gatherings and limit the number of family members coming together for Christmas.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government is advising citizens not to travel, backing that with a stiff warning that if they test positive abroad they won’t be able to get on a flight to return, and could be stranded.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and state governors agreed on restrictions to take effect before the new year, including limiting private gatherings to 10 people, closing nightclubs nationwide and holding large events like soccer matches without in-person audiences.
In the U.S., Biden has not issued fresh travel warnings nor urged the cancellation of public events. He stands by his workplace vaccine mandate, which is caught up in litigation. But he has held back from actions such as a vaccination requirement for air travel, which some public health experts have called for.
Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, the president seemed to be taking pains to try to connect with viewers on TV. He avoided a catchphrase that he and other members of his administration have often used __ “pandemic of the unvaccinated” __ and instead tried to appeal to vaccine refusers as fellow Americans.
“I, honest to God, believe it’s your patriotic duty,” Biden said, urging the unvaccinated to get their shots.
He even invoked his Republican predecessor. “Just the other day, former President (Donald) Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot,” Biden said. “It may be one of the few things he and I agree on.”
To vaccinated Americans, the president's message was a flashing yellow light to use caution and common sense as they go ahead with their holiday plans. To the unvaccinated, it was meant as a flashing red light to pause, take a good look, and reconsider their stance.
“You have an obligation to yourselves, to your family,” said Biden.
“Get vaccinated now,” he pleaded. “It’s free. It’s convenient. I promise you, it saves lives.”
But it's unclear what, if anything, will persuade some 40 million U.S. adults who remain unvaccinated.
A Kaiser foundation poll out this week found that only about 1 in 8 unvaccinated adults said the emergence of omicron has made them more likely to get a shot.
Earlier Kaiser polling highlighted the partisan and ideological splits. A survey last month found that 55% of unvaccinated adults are Republicans or lean to the GOP. That's compared to 16% for the Democrats.
A quarter of all Republicans say they will definitely not get a shot, compared to just 2% of Democrats who say the same.
The U.S. under COVID is like two nations, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He's not sure Biden's message will connect with vaccine refusers.
About two-thirds of Americans understand that vaccines can help them, Hotez said, but about one-fourth to one-third “are living under a rock."
While the White House is trying reach all Americans, “it comes out as very simplistic,” said Hotez.
And Biden's task of messaging is not going to get any less complicated.
As omicron spreads, more vaccinated people are going to become infected because two shots alone do not appear to offer enough protection against getting sick. Even if vaccinated people avoid hospitalization, as the data indicate they generally can, a case of COVID disrupts family life and work routines.
“Because omicron spreads so easily, we’ll see some fully vaccinated people get COVID, potentially in large numbers,” Biden acknowledged. “There will be positive cases in every office, even here in the White House ... among the vaccinated.”
Yet his administration has not changed the definition of “fully vaccinated” from two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to three, as some public health experts have urged. With Johnson & Johnson's single dose vaccine, a booster is also recommended.
The sense of unease among the vaccinated majority of Americans is underscored by news reports of well-known people such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., contracting COVID though fully vaccinated and boosted.
And Wednesday night, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a close ally of Biden, announced he has tested positive with a breakthrough infection but has no symptoms. Still, his brush with COVID-19 meant he had to miss his granddaughter's wedding.
“America is in a new phase of this pandemic," Clyburn, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, said in a statement. “No one is immune to this virus. I urge anyone who has not done so to get their vaccines and boosters.”
Associated Press writers Robert Gillies in Toronto and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.