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White House issues a warning to unvaccinated Americans as concerns about omicron grow

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients sounded a dire warning today about what the U.S. might be facing with the omicron variant in the weeks to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF ZIENTS: For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.

CORNISH: Now, that warning didn't come with many new policies or strategies to keep that dark winter from happening. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to explain. And first, Selena, can you start with what the White House is doing at this point? Because I understand there's some news on school quarantines.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. So there's new guidance for schools from CDC backed up by new research that unvaccinated students who've been exposed to someone who's infected can test twice a week and stay in class instead of quarantining at home. So this is called test to stay. My colleague Anya Kamenetz, who covers education, spoke recently with superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross in Ypsilanti, Mich. Her district has this policy, and she says she's thankful it's kept more of her students in the classroom instead of having to go home for 10 to 14 days after a close contact.

ALENA ZACHERY-ROSS: That's a huge factor for academics when you miss 10 days of school. I talked to a local superintendent that - they had a student in their building who has already missed 30 days. They've been out three times.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says this policy does require a huge amount of staff time and resources to make it work. But still this is good news for schools and parents that, going forward, there is a way to have fewer disruptions and safely keep kids in schools.

CORNISH: That's the new guidance the administration is putting forward. What else do public health experts say they could be doing but are not?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the federal government is requiring vaccination and tests within one day for international travel. But it could also require vaccinations or testing for domestic air and train travel like Canada has done. It has expanded booster eligibility to everyone over 18. But it could shorten the six months you have to wait for a booster. Officials have said that that's on the table, but no decision has been made. The federal government could also do more to make rapid tests free and more widely available like they are in the U.K. Tests here are still expensive and hard to come by. And then there's also mask mandates. You and I talked about this earlier this week. Only a handful of states have them, but instead of urging policymakers and companies to require masks indoors, officials are urging individuals to mask up, saying, essentially, the guidance is clear. Just follow it.

CORNISH: Are there any kind of behind-the-scenes conversations happening, though, between the White House and state leaders?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I was wondering about that, so I called up Dr. Marcus Plescia. He's chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. He said that so far, the White House has not been pushing states on putting more aggressive mitigation policies in place. And he notes that when CDC and the White House have put out regulatory guidance to states in the past, it has swayed them.

MARCUS PLESCIA: Some of it is a little bit of, you know, it's this peer pressure and it's the administration using the bully pulpit. I don't know why they're not taking that stance. We've not had any communications with them about that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He also says from a public health perspective, seeing how omicron is taking off in other countries...

PLESCIA: There's no question that acting aggressively right now is what we would say is the most prudent thing to do. I just - you know, in our - in my role working with states, I do understand that there's this whole balance they have to deal with.

CORNISH: Can you clarify? What does he mean the balance? What's the balance they have to strike?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's kind of like a balance between keeping people safe and working with what they will accept, right? Because we all feel this pandemic fatigue. And if you're making policy, you don't want to put in a potentially unpopular policy out there that nobody follows anyway, so it's not really enforceable, and it doesn't work to curb the spread. It's also that policymakers don't want to cry wolf. It seems like omicron surge could be really serious. There are some models to suggest that. But if it's a dud, then you could get branded as alarmist. What states have started to do is bring in the National Guard to help support hospitals. And the National Governors Association told me that on Tuesday, governors have a call with the White House COVID-19 response team. So we'll be watching to see what unfolds there.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks for this reporting.

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

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.