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Joe Biden will issue 'stark warning' to unvaccinated Americans in national address on Omicron variant

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President Joe Biden will address the nation on Tuesday over growing COVID-19 cases attributed to the Omicron variant, where he will issue a "stark warning" to those not vaccinated against COVID.

The national address will come at a time when scientists dispute the threat from Omicron. While the variant appears highly transmissible, the hospitalization rate in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, suggests the case wave there has already peaked.

What are the details?

White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement Saturday announcing Biden's address, and she previewed what the president will say.

"On Tuesday, the President will deliver remarks on the status of the country's fight against COVID-19, as the country sees rising cases amid the growing Omicron variant," Psaki said.

"Building off his Winter Plan, @POTUS will announce new steps the Administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance, while also issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated," she continued.

"We are prepared for the rising case levels, and @POTUS will detail how we will respond to this challenge. He will remind Americans that they can protect themselves from severe illness from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and getting their booster shot when they are eligible," the statement added.

The White House did not provide additional details about what Biden will say, nor is it clear what "stark warning" Biden will deliver to Americans who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19.

The "Winter Plan" that Psaki cited is the Biden administration's five-pronged response to the seasonal influx of COVID-19 cases. The plan includes: promoting COVID-19 booster shots, launching family vaccination clinics, expanding access to free at-home COVID-19 test kits, expanding "surge response teams," and increasing international travel rules for people visiting the U.S.

What about Omicron?

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla confirmed last week that while Omicron is highly contagious, data show the variant is responsible for a significantly lower rate of hospitalizations and severe infections than previous variants.

In fact, in the second week of the South African Omicron wave, only 1.7% of cases required hospitalization, compared to 19% of cases during the same period with the Delta variant.

Bloomberg News reported:

Currently there are about 7,600 people with Covid-19 in South African hospitals, about 40% of the peak in the second and third waves. Excess deaths, a measure of the number of deaths against a historical average, are just below 2,000 a week, an eighth of their previous peak.

“We are really seeing very small increases in the number of deaths,” said Michelle Groome, head of health surveillance for the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver pointed out, public health officials "risk squandering credibility" if they enact harsh restrictions because of the Omicron variant given data suggesting Omicron is "milder" than previous COVID-19 variants.

"I don't know how well it will extrapolate to the rest of the world but the South Africa data is certainly encouraging. I think it's important for public health officials and journalists to share good news as well as bad news; otherwise, they risk squandering credibility," Silver said.

"Put it like this: if Omicron *does* prove to be milder after health officials insist there's 'no evidence' it's milder—when there is evidence, just not proof—they're going to have a hell of a time getting people to take precautions for the not-so-mild Omega variant or whatever," he explained.

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