Omicron dominates the US: What Biden is doing, booster protection, free at-home COVID tests

With omicron infections surging in the US, health officials are pushing for boosters. What to know about about the variant today.

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The COVID-19 omicron variant is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the US.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Saying "it's your patriotic duty, " President Joe Biden on Tuesday called on Americans to get vaccinated and get a booster shot. "You have an obligation to yourself, to your family and quite frankly -- I know I'll get criticized for this -- to your country. Get vaccinated now." In his address to the nation, Biden said he would send military personal to assist hospitals, step up medical supplies for health facilities and send half a billion free at-home tests starting in January to anyone who wants one.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has quickly become the dominant coronavirus in the US, accounting for 73.2% of COVID-19 cases.

Scientists are working through the growing body of evidence that the mutated virus can easily pass from one person to another and evade protection provided by the primary vaccine doses of Pfizer, Moderna and Johson & Johnson. The New York Times on Sunday reported that COVID-19 vaccines used elsewhere in the world "offer almost no defense against becoming infected by the highly contagious Omicron variant." Only the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines appear to be effective in guarding against omicron. And those vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna shots need a booster to protect against infection and serious illness.

So far, the COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the US -- especially the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines -- have proven to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, with people who are unvaccinated being over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel on Thursday recommended that those looking for a safe and effective vaccine should choose an mRNA option (Pfizer or Moderna) -- and not Johnson and Johnson's.

Here are nine important things to know about omicron today. For more on COVID-19 boosters, here's how to get an appointment and a free ride to your shot. Here's how you'll soon get a COVID-19 test kit for free and details on mixing and matching vaccines.

Watch this: What to do if you lose your vaccination card, and how to never lose it again

Biden lays out his plan to battle the omicron variant

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Biden set out his administration's plans to get the country through the climbing infection rate caused by the highly infectious omicron variant.

Help for hospitals. Biden said he will mobilize an additional 1,000 troops -- including military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical personnel to hospitals -- to help those facilities burdened with COVID patients.

Expand hospital beds. Government agencies will work with states to increase hospital bed count.

Create testing sites. The administration will expand government COVID testing sites across the country in those areas.

Distribute free at-home testing kits. Starting in January 2022, the government will send free at-home testing kits to anyone who requests one.

A Pfizer or Moderna vaccine booster is needed to guard against omicron

Stressing the need for a booster, Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Biden, said this weekend, "when you get to omicron, the protection significantly goes down," with two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. "But the good news is when you boost someone, it goes right back up," Fauci said.

A third booster shot is urged by the CDC, which may eventually affect the definition of "fully vaccinated." Fauci said on Sunday whether the CDC changes the definition, the importance of a booster holds: "As far as I'm concerned -- I make it very clear -- if you want to be optimally protected, get boosted."

The new COVID-19 variant may spread more easily than delta

A growing collection of data suggests that omicron could be more infectious than the delta variant and is now the dominant strain in the UK.

The World Health Organization said the variant has been reported in 89 countries and the number of cases is doubling in 1.5 to 3 days, including in countries with high levels of immunity.

So far, the omicron virus may produce milder symptoms than delta

Some hopeful news on omicron came recently from South Africa. At a press briefing Thursday, Minister of Health Dr. Joe Phaahla noted that hospitalizations are "definitely much lower" than during the country's third wave, in June 2021. Only 1.7% of COVID-19 cases in this fourth wave's second week of infections involved hospitalization, compared with 19% during the second week of the third wave.

Health officials said the numbers may be skewed by breakthrough cases of those who are vaccinated and experiencing asymptomatic or mild illness. Those who are unvaccinated could have more severe illness.

Why did the CDC panel recommend the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over the one from Johnson & Johnson?

On Thursday, a CDC advisory panel voted to recommend that those looking for a safe vaccine pick either Moderna's or Pfizer's because of the risk of a potentially fatal blood clot issue associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, is expected to decide as soon as today whether to accept that panel's vote.

Is an omicron-specific vaccine needed?

Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have all said they are gearing up to create a vaccine specifically designed to combat omicron if it's needed.

Fauci on Dec. 15 said that there is no need for a variant-specific booster at this point. The current boosters appear to be effective against omicron.

Omicron has similarities to the delta variant's mutation

COVID latches onto cells using a spike protein in its structure. Omicron has more mutations than the delta variant, which is considered at least twice as contagious as previous strains. While it isn't clear yet whether omicron is more or less contagious than delta, the presence of those mutations is one cause of concern. 

That may be one reason numerous have banned travel from some countries in southern Africa and increased travel restrictions to include a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before travel, regardless of vaccination status.


Drugmakers are exploring if the current vaccines are effective against the new variant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

COVID PCR tests can identify the omicron variant

Most PCR tests to identify the presence of COVID-19 in the body are free (COVID-19 tests for international travel are the main exception). So it's good news that the existing nasal swab test has been found to detect the omicron variant; a blood test or other procedure is so far unnecessary.

"Fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations," Fauci said in a Nov. 29 press briefing.

Booster shots and vaccines are urged to help prevent omicron's spread

On Dec. 2, Biden announced a plan to help protect the US against the omicron variant this winter. It includes:

  • Outreach programs to contact people eligible to receive booster shots.
  • Making at-home COVID-19 tests "free" for everyone.
  • Tighter travel restrictions that require a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before departure.
  • Paid time off for federal workers to get booster shots.
  • Securing antiviral pills as a treatment for people who become infected with COVID-19 (these are recommended but not yet FDA-approved).
  • Sending 200 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccine to international countries in the next 100 days (280 million have already been sent).

For additional COVID-19 guidance, here's what to know about new travel restrictions, how to store your vaccine card on your phone and what to do if you lose your vaccine card.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.