The White House’s new plan to make coronavirus tests more widely available to mitigate a new virus wave may have come too little too late, former head of the Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb warned on Wednesday.
‘Look, we should have been doing this all along,’ the ex-FDA commissioner said on CNBC.
‘We should’ve been trying to get more at-home tests available and giving them away to consumers and in drug stores, you know, allowing consumers to come into a drug store, buy maybe four tests for $5, some small price and limiting the number of sales they can get, but making sure they got into the hands of consumers. That’s what other countries are doing.’
President Joe Biden outlined an aggressive strategy to take on the latest COVID-19 surge fueled by the Omicron variant on Tuesday, which includes sending 500 million at-home rapid tests directly to Americans’ doorstep in January.
Omicron now accounts for 73 percent of new cases in the US and pushes Europe to the brink of fresh lockdowns. New York, Georgia and Texas are all seeing major surges in new COVID cases, which are up more than 100 percent in the past two weeks in those states. Florida now leads the nation with cases up 371 percent in the past two weeks.
The nation is currently averaging 148,384 new cases daily over the past week, a 23 percent increase from two weeks ago. Confirmed Omicron cases increased by 19 percent day-over-day, up to 1,781 as of Wednesday morning from 1,485 on Tuesday, but that number represents only the tiny fraction of infections that are DNA sequenced.
Deaths have stabilized, with America averaging around 1,300 deaths per day – a steady figure for the past week and down slightly from two weeks ago.
Biden also announced the creation of new testing sites in addition to the existing 20,000 and will invoke the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests.
But local leaders and health experts including Gottlieb fear the Biden administration has been caught flat-footed and is racing to keep up as the last few days have already seen people nationwide line up for hours in the freezing winter weather for a test.
The former FDA commissioner warned on Wednesday that Biden’s aggressive new COVID plan comes ‘too late for certain parts of the country’
“It’s too late for certain parts of the country. Certainly the tri-state region probably is going to be coming out of this epidemic wave of omicron by mid-January,” says @ScottGottliebMD on W.H. distributing 500M at home tests. “We should have been doing this all along.” pic.twitter.com/iuQ1wuteZ4
— Squawk Box (@SquawkCNBC) December 22, 2021
On top of the long wait times, the sudden spike in demand has forced delays in turnaround time, making some wait up to a week to know if they tested positive and upending holiday travel plans.
‘It’s just outrageous that this late in the pandemic still it takes hours to wait in line to get a test, it takes days to get the results back,’ New York City Councilman Mark Levine said on MSNBC this morning.
‘It’s really unacceptable, and we do need federal intervention to solve this problem in New York City and beyond.’
The first new federally supported testing site will open in New York City this week.
But places like the Big Apple, home to about 8.5 million people, are already seeing new record-highs in their daily infection rates. Gottlieb said it’s likely the rollout will have little effect in areas like that, where cases are set to peak just weeks from now.
‘It’s too late for certain parts of the country, certainly the tri-state region probably is going to be coming out of this epidemic wave of Omicron in mid-January,’ he said in reference to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Though he added, ‘Other parts of the country will still be heating up.’
The Omicron variant (purple) is now the dominant Covid strain in the U.S., making up 73% of cases last week. It overtakes the Delta variant (orange) which had been dominant since July
People have complained of waiting for hours for COVID tests in the freezing winter weather (pictured: New Yorkers line up outside of The New School on December 21)
While Omicron is thought to be less severe than the previously-dominant Delta variant, health experts say it’s more infectious and its long-term effects are still being researched.
New York City has emerged as the new epicenter of the strain in recent days.
Councilman Levine said closures of private testing centers over staffing issues combined with the federal government’s at-home supply not coming until January creates a dire situation for New Yorkers.
He issued a public plea for the Biden administration to do more.
‘Every system that we have for dealing with cases, with testing, with referring people to care, are overwhelmed right now,’ Levine said.
‘We need the federal government to come in now and do what they did at the peak of the pandemic,’ he added, referring to the now shut federally-run mega-sites that vaccinated thousands of people per day.
Days out from Christmas, Americans are facing long lines to get tested for the coronavirus amid a new surge driven by the Omicron variant and a dire shortage of options for this vital screening measure (pictured: People wait to get tested in Washington, DC on December 22)
‘New York City is the canary in the coal mine and we want to prove that the federal government can have an impact here. Before this goes national – we need help now.’
The National Institutes of Health published a study in June recommending the country should have enough COVID-19 antigen tests for everyone in the US to be tested twice per week.
Although the Biden administration has left open the possibility of moving past the 500,000 at-home tests, they fall far short of medical experts’ recommendation.
‘There needs to be a commitment from the administration to make rapid, at-home tests available for every American to be able to test twice a week,’ former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen told Axios, adding that half a million isn’t ‘nearly enough.’
Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote in a Substack post that Biden’s new plan is ‘a far cry from what should have been announced in light of uncontrolled spread of the Delta and now Omicron strains throughout the country.’
He echoed criticisms that 500,000 at-home tests is ‘woefully inadequate.’
In this aerial view, cars line up at a Covid-19 testing site at Tropical Park in Miami, Florida on December 21
People queue for COVID-19 tests on East 14th Street as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Manhattan
‘We need several billion of these, and have needed them for over a year to help prevent spread, as validated and relied upon in many countries throughout the world. It’s good that the Administration has finally responded to the loud voices of frustration but it’s an exemplar of too little, too late,’ Topol said.
Biden on Tuesday defended his administration against accusations it was caught off-guard by the surge.
‘What took so long is, it didn’t take long at all,’ the president told reporters. ‘What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.’
‘If I had told you four weeks ago that this would spread – by a day-to-day basis – it would spread by 1500 percent, 200 percent, 500 percent, I think you’d have looked at me and said “Biden, what are you drinking?” But that’s what it did.’
Meanwhile, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky appeared to contradict Biden by insisting that the current surge in cases was expected.
Residents wait in a line extending around the block for the Christmas holiday food pantry, which includes free groceries, toys and home COVID test kits
‘We expected this, because we have seen the doubling times of this virus in other countries have been really rapid and that’s what we’re seeing here in the United States,’ Walensky insisted in an interview with the Today Show on Wednesday.
Pressed on criticism that the Biden administration failed to secure enough at-home test kits as Americans struggle to find them, Walensky insisted that resources were being devoted to surge testing capacity.
‘This has come on quickly. We’ve learned about Omicron just prior to Thanksgiving. The administration is doing a lot with regard to testing and we recognize we have more work to do,’ she said.
In a sure sign of the growing wariness to the new strain, Biden’s top medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Americans on Tuesday night to disinvite unvaccinated family members from their Christmas celebrations.
‘We’re dealing with a serious enough situation now that if there’s an unvaccinated person, I would say, ‘I’m very sorry, but not this time. Maybe another time when this is all over,’ said Fauci in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday night.