Walensky, Kessler, and O’Connell Brief Select Subcommittee Members on Omicron Response
Washington, D.C. (January 11, 2022) — Today, Members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, received a briefing from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. David Kessler, Chief Science Officer for the Coronavirus Response, Department of Health and Human Services, and Ms. Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Department of Health and Human Services, on the federal government’s response to the Omicron variant. The briefing covered the federal government’s efforts to promote uptake of coronavirus vaccines and boosters, expand access to testing, procure and distribute coronavirus treatments, and develop public health guidance, among other topics.
Chairman Clyburn said in opening remarks:
“The Select Subcommittee asked Dr. Walensky, Dr. Kessler, and Assistant Secretary O’Connell to brief our Members on the federal government’s ongoing response efforts in light of the rapid developments surrounding the Omicron variant. … We knew that our fight against the virus would not be easy, particularly with the high levels of vaccine hesitancy we continue to face in this country. But thanks to the tireless efforts of our frontline workers, our public health leaders, and the hundreds of millions of Americans who rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated, we stand well-equipped to combat the Omicron variant.”
Dr. Walensky, Dr. Kessler, and Assistant Secretary O’Connell shared the following insights during the briefing:
The Highly Infectious Omicron Variant Is Driving Significant Spread, but May Subside More Quickly and Cause Less Severe Disease than Prior Strains
- In response to a question from Chairman Clyburn regarding the anticipated trajectory of the Omicron variant in the United States, Dr. Walensky explained that data from other countries show that Omicron-driven cases rose exponentially but also dissipated quickly compared to prior strains. Based on that data, Dr. Walensky said that there may be a “narrowness to this wave.” She indicated that the United States could see a decline in cases earlier than in previous waves, particularly in areas that first experienced Omicron-driven surges, like the Northeast.
- Dr. Walensky explained that although the high overall volume of cases continues to cause a significant strain on the health care system, available data indicate that Omicron may be “less severe” than other strains.
The Biden Administration Is Taking Significant Action to Ensure Americans Have the Tools They Need to Live Safely
- Assistant Secretary O’Connell emphasized that “testing is a significant priority” for the Biden Administration and outlined actions the Administration has taken to make testing more accessible, such as expanding the number of testing sites available nationwide, increasing the types of tests available, expanding testing supply, and lowering costs, including by requiring insurance companies to cover the costs of at-home tests.
- Assistant Secretary O’Connell recognized that the Omicron variant is driving a need to increase testing capacity. She stated that the Administration is “working day and night” to expand testing capacity. Assistant Secretary O’Connell noted that 300 million rapid tests will be available in the United States this month—up from only 46 million in October 2021. She also detailed the 10,000 surge sites and 10,000 community-based pharmacy testing sites established by the Biden Administration to increase access to testing, particularly for those who may be hard to reach.
- Dr. Kessler highlighted the Biden Administration’s commitment to donate 1.2 billion vaccine doses for global vaccination efforts, emphasizing the Administration’s dedication to distributing safe and effective vaccines around the world. Dr. Kessler explained that the mission of promoting overall global public health, in conjunction with vaccinating the world, remains essential to the nation’s wellbeing.
Booster Shots Confer Significant Protection Against the Omicron Variant, Reinforcing the Urgency to Increase Uptake Among All Eligible Americans
- Dr. Walensky said, “the emergence of Omicron emphasizes the importance of vaccinations and boosters.” She explained that the majority of individuals hospitalized for coronavirus continue to be those who are unvaccinated.
- Dr. Walensky outlined key actions recently taken by the federal government to expand booster coverage, including authorizing booster shots for children ages 12 to 15 years old, recommending boosters for all eligible adolescents, shortening the period between a primary vaccination series and a booster dose to five months, and recommending that certain immunocompromised children receive an additional dose as part of their primary vaccination series.
New Coronavirus Treatments Will Help the Country Reach a Place “Where We Can Live with the Virus”
- Dr. Kessler detailed how the nation’s “medicine cabinet” now contains multiple therapeutics that are effective against the Omicron variant, including a monoclonal antibody regimen that remains effective at treating Omicron and two recently authorized oral antiviral treatments have also been shown to be effective. Dr. Kessler explained that oral antiviral drugs are “expected to stay more effective” against new variants.
- Dr. Kessler noted that the Biden Administration also worked to accelerate clinical trials of the Pfizer oral antiviral drug—reducing the time it took to bring the highly effective treatment to market by seven months.
- Dr. Kessler underscored that therapeutics offer “enormous potential” in the fight against the Omicron variant. He said that authorized treatments, along with candidates in the pipeline, should allow the country to safely reach a place “where we can live with the virus.” He also noted that the federal government is now shipping more treatment regimens to states and territories than it ever has before.
Dr. Walensky and Dr. Kessler previously testified before the Select Subcommittee on April 15, 2021. Dr. Walensky also briefed Select Subcommittee Members with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, regarding the spread of the Delta variant on July 29, 2021.