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Biden Addresses Omicron Surge as Nation Faces COVID Testing Shortage & Overwhelmed Hospitals

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President Biden has announced a plan to begin distributing 500 million at-home COVID tests starting in January in response to the latest surge in cases, linked to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus. His plan also includes the establishment of new federal testing sites and the deployment of military medical personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals around the country. Dr. Tsion Firew, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center, says nurses and other healthcare providers are quitting or retiring in large numbers as the pandemic drags on, leading to an even greater strain on those still on the frontlines. “It’s just very frustrating and also overburdening our healthcare system,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden has announced a plan to begin distributing half a billion at-home COVID tests in response to the fast-spreading winter COVID surge linked to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Biden addressed the nation Tuesday and urged everyone to get vaccinated.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So, folks, let me summarize: We should all be concerned about Omicron but not panicked. If you’re fully vaccinated, and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected. And if you’re unvaccinated, you’re at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, getting hospitalized, and even dying. So the best thing to do is to get fully vaccinated and get your booster shot.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden also announced plans to set up new federal testing sites and to dispatch military medical personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals. He also called out anti-vaxxers, who have spread misinformation about the vaccines and the pandemic.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices. But those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media. You know, these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters. It’s wrong. It’s immoral. I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it. Stop it now.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the state of the pandemic and Biden’s plan, we’re joined now by Dr. Tsion Firew. She’s assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. She’s also an adviser to the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia.

So, thanks so much, Dr. Firew, for joining us. You’re here in New York. The lines of hundreds of people — I was speaking to someone who told me about a teacher who wanted to sign up for a test, and the local clinic where she wanted to go, they told her it would be — she would get the shot in maybe 10 hours. Talk about the state of access to testing now, why it’s important, and also what President Biden has said the administration will do with these 500 million free tests at home.

DR. TSION FIREW: So, that’s such a very welcome news that we’re going to have half a billion tests by January. But, as you stated, we need it now more so than ever, especially now with the holidays coming and people traveling. And also, what you shared, the story of the very similar — everyone that I’ve talked to in the hospital, also yesterday while I was doing telemedicine, everybody had access issue to testing or people using home antigen tests. And it just takes us back to March and April 2020, where there were no access or limited testing at the time even for physicians and for healthcare providers, in general. And it feels like we’re back to square one, especially with the surge.

Yes, the messaging was clear yesterday about the need for vaccination, but the testing right now is more important, because those people who just have mild symptoms of throat or just sniffles and mild cold symptoms at this point are most likely to have COVID.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Firew, I wanted to ask you about this issue of testing. Clearly, the government and most local governments, as well, downplayed the need for testing once vaccinations began, but there were elite institutions around the country — for instance, I think of Princeton University. Princeton University was requiring once-a-week testing since the beginning of the year for all vaccinated students, twice-a-week testing if you weren’t vaccinated — not just the students but all faculty. And they were providing free testing for the local community. So they’ve been doing it since September. And yet we find huge portions of our government infrastructure was not really paying attention to the need to continue to test even as people were getting vaccinated. Was this just a question of money and resources, or was there basically a mistaken view of how to continue to have surveillance of the development of the virus?

DR. TSION FIREW: So, I would say I think a lot of the push and a lot of the resources were going towards the vaccine and the boosters. And we’ve seen here in New York City many of the testing sites had been shut down in the past, especially once the boosters and once we were trying to really push that agenda. I think that the push for testing has been declining all over the country, not just only in New York, in other places. And to comment on that specifically, especially in places that have low prevalence of COVID, I think that testing has decreased drastically.

But I think what I would have — what I would think that would the right thing to do at that time when we were seeing Omicron variants arriving from different places around the world, and also we were seeing the surge in South Africa, I think the preparation to see that most likely happen in the U.S. and to prepare for that beforehand would have been appropriate to have these testing sites available and to also amp up availability of antigen tests at home.

And we’ve been asking for that, actually, for a very long time. Me and my colleagues were really active on social media about home testings and making antigen tests available at home for many across the U.S., when Germany and other countries in Europe were doing it. And back in Thanksgiving, especially when people were going to be traveling for the holidays, we were predicting that the cases might be going up.

And, unfortunately, some of the responses are a bit too late. And I think we need to learn from the previous surge and also from other countries. I think, actually, about this short-term memory, and we seem to forget what we’ve gone through.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re hearing reports, obviously, that there’s a huge shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers around the country. Could you explain what’s happening and the effects on your hospital and other medical facilities, as well, as we confront this new surge?

DR. TSION FIREW: So, we’re seeing all over — right after the pandemic started, there’s been an increase in burnout. And also we’ve seen people that were near retirement age have decided to retire early because of all the burden that everybody went through, especially during the surge in New York area. And my hospital is no exception, and we’re seeing that all over the country. And people are also — who could afford to leave for other professions, have left just healthcare, in general.

And as we are seeing more and more nurses leave and more other healthcare providers leaving, the burden is added on the people that are staying and working. So there is a burnout all over that we’re feeling, that my colleagues and many people that are working in the hospitals are sharing at this point. And it just continues.

And we really don’t — you know, sometimes, especially with this pandemic going on forever, and with so much of the anti-vaxxers and the vaccine hesitancy we continue to witness, we don’t know when this pandemic is going to be over. So, when the near is not — when the end is not near, and also with continuing to witness the surge here and then, and especially with people letting their guards down, and we continue to witness this rise in cases, it’s just very frustrating, and it’s also overburdening our healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Firew, I want to ask you about an article that you wrote in The Guardian, “I’m a pregnant doctor and I feel confident receiving the Covid vaccine. Here’s why.” It was from last January. I wanted to ask you about pregnant people and whether they should be concerned. Maybe they already had the double shot, and now we’re talking about the booster. I mean, if the vaccine hasn’t been approved for infants, should they be concerned about the effects on the fetus? Why you feel so confident at this point? And now this new information coming out about Johnson & Johnson vaccines, people, you know, who might suffer from thrombosis, blood-clotting diseases, should not take it, and the whole push to move away from Johnson & Johnson. If you could talk about this, starting with the issue of pregnancy?

DR. TSION FIREW: So, last year, exactly almost a year ago, I was one of the people who were pregnant and who received the vaccine. And at the time, as you know, as for me even being a healthcare provider, I wanted more information, and I was a bit hesitant. But being — what we’re seeing right now, pregnant women are at higher risk of having severe illness from the disease if they’re not vaccinated. And to your point, most of the patients that I have seen in the past few days who are testing positive or who become severely ill are pregnant women. And most of the hesitancy is because of the lack of information, or nobody has sat down and gone over the data and what we are actually seeing.

The data shows so far that there’s not been any harm to the fetus from vaccination. It’s actually been very protective to the mother and also to the fetus. As we are seeing more patients who are unvaccinated, especially pregnant women are ending up in the ICUs, are ending up severely ill and actually harming the baby because the mothers are not getting appropriate oxygenation, and this causes serious harm to the baby. So, the risk, of course, like every vaccine, the risk of vaccination — some vaccines have some side effects, but they’re very, very minimal. Having the disease actually brings greater risk to the mother and to the baby.

And at this point, now a year into the vaccines, so many pregnant women, especially healthcare workers, who are vaccinated and who have — you know, now have normal and healthy babies at this point. I think that should speak to the data, and also that should speak to the people who are hesitant about the vaccine. And I’ve talked to yesterday a patient who was a 22-week-old. She was very hesitant about getting the vaccine. And I took my time. I said, “Hey, I have a healthy young boy at this point who is 9 months. And a lot of my colleagues, who were also vaccinated at the time, have young healthy babies.”

So, at this point, I think we really should end into the hesitancy, and people should talk to their doctors, their OB-GYN doctors and their primary care doctors. They just need to sit down and go over the data, what’s available. And we have convincing data at this point.

And what you suggested earlier about the Johnson & Johnson, the risk of thromboembolism, we see that with, you know, some of the vaccines, but, again, the risks are very, very minimal. And at this point, when the COVID is just spreading like a wildfire, I think it’s very appropriate to take the small risk while there’s a big threat in front of you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of spreading like wildfire, we’ve heard repeatedly reports that, basically, Omicron is spreading among the unvaccinated. But there is still a significant percentage of children in the U.S. who are unvaccinated. Are you seeing younger and younger patients in the hospitals now?

DR. TSION FIREW: So, I don’t work normally with pediatric patients. But talking to my colleagues, they’ve seen patients that are testing highly positive especially among kids, but, thankfully, not severely ill.

But I would like to share the data of what we’ve seen in South Africa. The number of cases of kids under 2 who are testing positive and also needing admission to hospital had increased, especially for kids under the age of 2. And this is something that we have to prepare for here in the U.S. But to as your question, yes, we’ve seen increased cases of positivity among kids, but not so much in the hospitalizations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk internationally. You know, in the corporate media in the United States, the message is very clear: Wear masks — unless you’re the Southwest CEO, who testified before Congress through a coughing fit and said masks don’t help — amongst his CEO colleagues, he testified, wasn’t wearing a mask when he testified, and then went home and tested positive for COVID. But wear a mask, get vaccinated, you know, socially distance, be responsible, don’t gather in large groups. But this issue of vaccinate the world is not emphasized very much in the United States, really the power center in the world and determines so much of what happens in the world, around the issue, for example, of access to vaccines. In addition to being an emergency room doc and professor of emergency medicine, Dr. Firew, you are an adviser to the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia. I think something like 1.4% of the people have been fully vaccinated there, compared to something like 60% in the United States. Can you talk about the demand of so many that the U.S. push harder, especially having given billions to Moderna and Pfizer, for getting these vaccines to the world and allowing factories around the world that have the ability to produce these vaccines — making it possible for them to do this?

DR. TSION FIREW: Thank you for that question. It’s something that I’m very passionate about. And this is something that my colleagues and I have shared and written about. It’s very important to have this global solution for a global problem. As we’ve seen, we have variants coming from different parts of the world, and this is because people do not have access to vaccination and people are at risk. And there’s this saying that, you know, we’re all at risk until everyone is safe.

And as you’ve stated, the vaccination and the uptake in many places are very low, and mostly especially in lower- and middle-income countries. It’s because of poor access and distribution of vaccine in those areas. And as you spoke, also the pharmaceuticals and some companies are not sharing their technology. And because of that, it makes the distribution of the vaccines very, very difficult locally, especially in lower- and middle-income countries. That is something that we should really emphasize and talk about.

The United States had made a promise, especially at the U.N. General Assembly back in September, to donate close to a billion of vaccines worldwide. But as we’ve seen also, it’s taking a long time to get those vaccines to the arms of the people that need it, especially the most vulnerable populations of the world.

And as we are seeing, more of the variants that are coming are more transmissible. And as more of these transmissible viruses are coming around, there is an increased chance of having new variants that might not even be responsive to the vaccines that have been developed already. So, each time there’s more viruses that are going around and passing from one country to another, from one person to another, there is the increased chance of also developing a new variant, so we won’t be able to know what’s going on.

And also, what we’ve seen right now, some of the countries, especially there’s the xenophobia against countries that have — that should be applauded for identifying the variant, but really are actually being punished for identifying this variant. I still don’t understand why we have a travel ban against South Africa and many south African countries, while we have the Omicron at this point in the U.S. as the variant of leading numbers all over the country.

So, I think there is a lot of this culture, other — us versus others. And I think the pandemic, at this point, we should have learned that — how we are all interconnected. When there’s a few people who are a threat, it’s not really about building up walls and working in silos, but really having this global solution for this global problem. And that’s the definition of a pandemic. That’s epidemiology 101. A pandemic, by itself, means a global problem. And we should address it and come up with a global solution, instead of working in silos.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tsion Firew, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, also adviser to Ministry of Health in Ethiopia.

Coming up, a group of Haitian asylum seekers have filed a class-action suit against the Biden administration, accusing it of physical abuse, racial discrimination and other severe rights violations. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

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