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On Monday, Nov. 29, President Joe Biden addressed the nation during a somber press conference, informing Americans about a recently-detected mutation of the coronavirus which has surfaced in several countries around the globe.

And while the U.S. has no confirmed cases as of Monday, the president urged Americans to remain calm as scientists work to determine the strength of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus which appears to be more contagious than previous strains and potentially immune to current vaccines. 

The Biden administration has imposed travel restrictions on individuals coming from eight countries in southern Africa including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, which began Monday. 

Flanked by chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden said the variant indicates a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” He noted that the U.S. has a greater arsenal of tools to combat COVID-19 than ever before and sits better poised to battle the virus than in March 2020, or even December 2020. 

He promised to share a more detailed strategy for fighting COVID-19 and the Omicron variant on Thursday, Dec. 2 and in subsequent weeks prior to Christmas.  

“Sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” he said. “We’ll have to face this new threat, just as we faced those that have come before it,” Biden said. “While we have the travel restrictions that can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it.”

“But here’s what it does: it gives us time. It gives us time to take more actions; to move quicker – to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine, you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster,” he said. 

On Friday, Nov. 26, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a COVID-19 “disaster emergency” declaration, citing an increase in rates of infections and hospitalizations as the cause. In her remarks, she did not comment on the Omicron variant. 

The new variant further complicates Biden’s health agenda as he faces a dismal approval rating and continued pushback by at least 10 U.S. states whose citizens have refused to get vaccinated. Biden has also been criticized by both foreign leaders and international health experts for America’s delay in sending vaccines to the world’s poorer countries. 

He urged those 18 and older and at least six months out from their second vaccine shot to get the booster. 

“If you’re 18 years or over and got fully vaccinated before June the first, go get the booster shot today,” he said while also encouraging people to wear masks in crowded indoor places.

During the press conference, he reiterated that a return to stringent lockdowns remains off the table – at least for now. 

The World Health Organization identified Omicron as a “variant of concern” last week after South Africa reported the new strain November 24. Its discovery sent countries scrambling to mitigate the spread of the variant while the U.S. issued air travel restrictions from the eight above-mentioned African nations. 

Besides southern Africa, the Omicron variant has been detected in at least 14 countries including the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal and Belgium. Canada and Japan have also confirmed cases of the new variant. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that no cases of the new strain have been identified in the U.S. so far. 

However, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, predicted Sunday during an interview on “Face the Nation” that the Omicron variant “almost definitely” has already made its way to America’s shores. 

He also raised the concern that travel restrictions could be interpreted as “very punitive,” leading nations to find few, if any, incentives and therefore to refrain, unlike officials from South Africa, from reporting new coronavirus strains to the World Health Organization

Still, he seemed optimistic, despite greater concerns from the world’s leading health officials 

“If someone who’s been infected with Delta is well-protected from this and someone who is fully boosted is also well-protected from this, that could be a pretty good backstop from this becoming really epidemic in the United States,” Gottlieb said adding that those working on vaccines have expressed a “pretty good degree of confidence” that three doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be “fairly protective” against the new strain.” 

You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster,” he said.

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