Biden dismisses need for more lockdowns as new COVID-19 variant sparks travel restrictions

President Joe Biden downplayed the need for more lockdowns after restricting travel to South Africa due to the slow spread of a new variant, called omicron, that was first identified in the country.

Biden said during an address Monday that Americans need to get a booster shot as the best way to protect against the new variant, even as major questions about the impact of it remain. The remarks come as hospitals are already reeling from the previous COVID-19 surge fueled by the delta variant along with a major staffing shortage.

“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there is no need for a lockdown,” Biden said.

The remarks come as the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the variant as a cause for concern even though more research is needed on it.

The WHO said it isn’t clear yet whether omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, which already could spread faster than previous mutations of COVID-19.

“The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of omicron or other factors,” the organization said in a Nov. 28 release.

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Researchers are also looking into whether omicron causes more severe infection. The WHO said that while hospitalizations in South Africa are increasing, it could be due to overall rising numbers rather than just because of the new variant.

Biden said the variant is a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

“We have the best vaccines in the world, best medicines, best scientists, and we are learning more every single day,” he said. “We have more tools today to fight the variant than we ever have before.”

Biden said it is likely inevitable that omicron will reach the U.S., but the travel restrictions to South Africa help give the country more time to vaccinate additional people.

The new variant comes as the health system is still recovering from the previous surge of delta that emerged in summer and early fall. Hospital systems reported in their latest earnings they were forced to spend more money on staffing and other expenses to ensure enough capacity to fight the rising cases.

Hospitals are also facing a massive labor shortage, especially among nurses, that has caused further strain.

Massachusetts, for example, called for the state’s hospitals to curb any unnecessary surgical procedures not because of rising COVID-19 hospitalizations but due to the labor shortage and a wave of non-COVID-19 care deferred due to the pandemic.