There is still little data available on the new omicron variant of COVID-19 but that is not stopping some political leaders from implementing new policies and requirements. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a vaccine mandate for employees across the city. The Biden administration is restricting travel from some nations while heavily promoting COVID-19 booster shots.

But what do experts say is the right response to the omicron variant? 

Political leaders “shouldn’t respond reflexively with the same old, same old tools that haven’t worked all that well in the past,” says Doug Badger, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, the parent organization of The Daily Signal.

Badger joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what we do, and do not, know about the new COVID-19 variant and how our elected leaders can respond without restricting freedom. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • During a video meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden expresses concerns over Russia’s intents toward Ukraine. 
  • Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows says he no longer plans to cooperate with a congressional probe into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
  • Lawmakers strip from the National Defense Authorization Act a controversial provision that would have required women to register for the military draft.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: How should policymakers respond to the new COVID-19 variant called omicron? Here with us to answer that question and break down what we know about the variant is Doug Badger, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Doug, thank you so much for being here.

Doug Badger:
Thank you for inviting me.

Allen: So to begin, let’s just talk about what we do and what we actually don’t know about omicron. Because we’re hearing a lot. This is a brand new variant. What do we actually know, and what’s still unknown?

Yeah. Well, the variant was first reported by South African authorities on Nov. 24. So as of this recording, scientists have known about this for less than two weeks. So there’s very little they know at this point and a whole lot they don’t know.

Science does not move at the speed of Twitter. But there are three big questions here that scientists are trying to answer. First, is it more contagious than previous variants? Second, is it more lethal than previous variants? And then finally, our existing immunities, whether naturally acquired or through vaccines, are those immunities effective against it?

Allen: OK. Now, it is pretty common for viruses to mutate, correct? This isn’t a major shocker, right?

It is not a major shocker. As I’m sure the listeners know, they’ve been naming these variants using letters of the Greek alphabet. Delta, the one that we’ve been familiar with over the last few months, is the fourth letter. Omicron is the 15th. So there’ve been an awful lot of variants in between.

This one, though, has captured people’s attention for several reasons. First, while we don’t know how contagious it is, there have been a lot of indicators that it may be very contagious, perhaps more so than the delta variant.

If you look in South Africa, they went from 200 cases a day in mid-November to more than 10,000 a day on Dec. 6. And that’s largely, apparently, the omicron variant. There was a flight from South Africa to the Netherlands, 600 passengers, 61 tested positive for the delta variant when they disembarked. So it could very well be more contagious.

Some preliminary indications, though, that it might not cause serious illness. South African health officials say that in the hospitals in the province where they’ve had the biggest outbreak, most of the patients don’t require oxygen. They’re not oxygen-dependent, which is very, very different, they say, from previous waves of infection that they’ve seen. That might be a good sign.

And then finally, the issue of whether vaccines are effective against it. Don’t yet know, but there’s some optimism that it may well be.

Allen: Doug, the question that so many people are asking and considering is, we have been in the middle of this pandemic now for nearly two years, and what is the response that we should be getting from our leaders, from our political leaders, from our health officials? How should they be responding to this new variant, given the amount of information that we have about it, but beyond that, the amount of information we have about COVID? And as a society, have we learned enough of how to deal with the pandemic, with this virus, that life can continue “as normal,” or are there measures that political leaders should be taking? What do you think?

Well, at this point, I think it’s most appropriate for them to stop and wait and learn a little more about this. Because at this point, as I mentioned, scientists don’t really know yet what it is we’re dealing with.

There’s a tendency on the part of governments to pull the same tools out of the existing toolkit, travel restrictions, lockdowns, mandates, and so on and so forth.

The New York governor proclaimed a state of emergency within hours of learning that there was a new variant. She’s already talking about canceling nonemergency procedures at some state hospitals. The New York City mayor is wanting to impose vaccination mandates on private companies. All of this because of the omicron strain, and we don’t know yet whether the vaccines are effective against the omicron strain.

So they shouldn’t respond reflexively with the same old, same old tools that haven’t worked all that well in the past. They should wait to get more information about this, and they should communicate clearly and dispassionately with people. They need to be honest where they don’t know what’s going on, they need to convey that there’s some uncertainty about what they’re learning, and they definitely need not to overreact to it.

Allen: You mentioned New York City. And as you say, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all private businesses, private companies in the Big Apple must require their employees to get vaccinated. Doug, what are the implications of a mandate like this?

Well, I’ll skip for now the legal implications. Does the New York City mayor have that authority to put that mandate on private employers? So far, the courts have held that the federal government, federal executive branch agencies, do not have that authority, but that raises a little bit of a different question.

One of the issues that arises, though, is that we’re in a time where there is a labor shortage. People may be waiting longer to get the packages that they’ve ordered for Christmas, because there are problems in the supply chain. We’re seeing inflation. We’re seeing various kinds of problems.

And one of the dangers of vaccine mandates is that it will make those labor shortages a little worse. And the people who are most likely caught up in these kinds of issues and these kinds of dilemmas are those who are vaccine-resistant. They tend to be lower paid employees, lower wage employees, who don’t have the option to work remotely.

And what we end up doing is losing health care workers, losing postal workers, losing others who are absolutely critical to the supply chain, and disproportionately affecting people with lower wages, in some cases, members of minority groups, because minorities continue to have a lower vaccination rate than the overall population.

Allen: And we’re also seeing that New York City is requiring kids ages 5 to 11 to be vaccinated in order to enter restaurants, gyms, places of entertainment, entertainment venues. Doug, what exactly is the purpose of mandating the vaccine for kids? Is there a good reason for that?

You know, it’s very, very interesting. The [Food and Drug Administration] had its expert panel last month review whether in fact they ought to approve vaccines for kids age 5 through 11.

And what they found was, as we know, the risk of COVID for healthy kids in that age group is very, very low. And some of the advisers during their debate said, “Look, we know what’s going to happen. We’re going to say that it’s OK to vaccinate kids 5 through 11, and then somebody’s going to come along and say, ‘Oh, well, let’s mandate that kids 5 through 11 be vaccinated.'” And they wanted to be very clear that they didn’t think the mandate was a very good idea, and they were reluctant to approve it for all kids, just because it might lead to those abuses.

Unfortunately, the FDA presented them with an all-or-nothing proposition. Either approve it for all kids or approve it for no kids.

There are children with preexisting diseases, underlying medical conditions, that put them at very high risk of serious illness and death from COVID. Those kids, probably it’s a good idea to vaccinate them. But on something like this that’s a close call for most kids, it’s a very, very low risk, vaccine might make it marginally a little bit lower—those are conversations that parents should have with their kids’ doctors.

Get individualized medical advice for your child. A mayor, a president, a senator, they shouldn’t be making these decisions for other people’s kids. These are intensely personal medical decisions, and they ought to be made between parents and pediatricians.

Allen: Yeah, it certainly does seem like it would be something that would be very case by case. At what point, Doug, as we look at New York City, as we look at President [Joe] Biden and his proposed vaccine mandates, at what point do we just let Americans live their lives and choose what is best for them, to live free from restrictions, from mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and so forth? I mean, is there a tipping point here coming?

Well, honestly, I think we’re pretty much there. People are very aware of this pandemic. I would venture that more people have heard of the omicron variant than know that Kamala Harris is vice president of the United States. I mean, you cannot, whether it’s on social media, television, you can’t interact with anybody in our society and not know about the fact that this disease is out there and that it’s contagious.

In my view, some people are making some very unwise decisions not to be vaccinated. For the most part, older people are being vaccinated. [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] tells us that 99.9% of people age 65 to 74 have gotten at least one dose and 89% are fully vaccinated, 60% have gotten boosters.

So the message has gotten out there to the people most at risk. And I would hope that it’s also being heard by people who have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to serious illness.

But again, there’s a big difference between people being uninformed about the risks and people making decisions for themselves that I may think are unwise and that some of the political leaders may think is unwise, but ultimately, it is their decision.

Allen: And we’ve seen from the Biden administration right now, obviously, his big response, the president’s main response to the omicron variant, is promotion of the vaccine, is promotion of booster shots. But we also know with the vaccine mandate, there have been so many lawsuits filed against it, including by The Heritage Foundation. You’ve mentioned the mandate. Where exactly do things stand right now with President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate?

Well, they’re not faring terribly well in the courts. Now, he’s got a whole series of mandates. I’m just going to focus on two of them. The first is from the Labor Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, which mandates that all companies with at least 100 employees put in place mandates.

And then there’s one through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS, which oversees the Medicare and Medicaid programs, that requires hospitals and other health care facilities to order their employees to get vaccinated.

Both of those were to take effect on Dec. 6. Both of those have been enjoined. The federal judges have said, “No, you cannot enforce this, and you can’t go forward until we’ve heard the arguments in the case and make a decision as to whether you have legal authority to do it.”

So right now, both of those, the two biggest mandates, are not being enforced by the federal government under court order. And appeals of both of those rulings are in progress.

Allen: Now, if you could sit down with President Biden and with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and talk with them about their response to omicron, what would you say to them? How would you advise them for how, as political leaders, they should be leading our country right now?

Well, I think the first thing I’d ask Dr. Fauci to do is to apologize for his “I represent science” remarks. I can tell you, I’ve tried this at home, my wife doesn’t buy it. So forget it. He’s a very smart man. He is a world-class expert on infectious diseases, which means he knows that there are a lot of things scientists don’t know about this pandemic. I think a little humility would go a long way toward boosting his credibility among tens of millions of Americans who have just tuned him out.

So the president, I might ask him to stop politicizing the pandemic. I mean, he’s been a politician for nearly half a century. I don’t think there are very many people on the planet who have ever been able to say that. And so you kind of reflexively take credit for things you didn’t do and shift blame for things that you did.

So he spent his first six months in office taking credit for the fact that people were getting vaccinated when it was really his predecessor that made all of that possible. And then when cases started to rise over the summer, he immediately started to blame people who disagreed with him politically and started accusing unvaccinated people of killing people, and so on and so forth.

That’s fine as a politician. Motivate your base, demonize your political opponents. But as president, if you’re really trying to get people to change their minds about this, you have to be able to persuade them. Demeaning them, threatening their jobs, it’s just not a good look for a president. And I don’t think it accomplishes his stated goals.

Allen: Are there any countries that you think are responding really well right now to the omicron variant or who just throughout the pandemic have really handled things you would say very excellently and maybe we should be taking some notes from?

Well, everybody’s got some good features and some bad features. One that I think the U.K. and Germany got particularly correct was the widespread availability of affordable at-home COVID tests.

Our FDA was very slow to approve them, and unlike Operation Warp Speed with vaccines, the government didn’t commit to buying a whole bunch of them. So they’re hard to find. They’re kind of expensive, really. And so people aren’t just going to go out there and test themselves regularly before they get together with others and so forth because of that cost.

It really would make an awful lot of sense to make these broadly available, to educate people about their importance and their use, and for them to be able to check themselves.

These are, you do a nasal swab and within 15 minutes you find out if you tested positive or negative. They really could be a very important tool in helping people learn their COVID status and then take appropriate steps by avoiding others and not spreading it.

Allen: I think so many Americans are fearful that we’ll see another lockdown, that we’ll see things shut down again. We have seen that President Biden has said he does not have plans to issue more lockdowns. Are you confident, Doug, that the president is going to remain true to his word and that we won’t see lockdown measures put in place again?

Well, I’m not as confident as I’d like to be, and I say that for two reasons. First, he’s reversed himself before. Most significantly, he maintained throughout the summer that there would be no vaccine mandate. And all of a sudden on Sept. 9, he reversed himself and started issuing all of these mandates that people either get vaccinated or lose their jobs. … And those orders, I believe, are unlawful. And so far, the courts have agreed.

Secondly, he really hasn’t shown sufficient regard for the legal limits on his power. Like President [Donald] Trump, he directed the CDC to put in place a moratorium on evictions. CDC does not have jurisdiction, national jurisdiction, over landlords and tenants, and President Biden unfortunately forced it to the point that the Supreme Court was forced to tell him not once, but twice that he couldn’t enforce it. Within two weeks after that second and definitive Supreme Court ruling against him, he announces vaccine mandates, which again, exceed his legal authority.

Now, again, I’m not saying that President Biden is going to try to put a lockdown in place. I hope he doesn’t. But unfortunately, the track record that he’s compiled over the course of really less than a year means that we can’t say definitively that he won’t do it.

Allen: Yeah. Well, Doug, as information continues to come out about omicron and we continue to learn about really the details of this virus and the vaccines’ effectiveness against it, what are platforms where you’re getting your information and where you would recommend to our listeners to say, “You know, you should be looking at these sites or these news platforms to be getting information that you can trust”? Because there’s obviously so many competing voices right now.

Yeah. And I would list first a couple that sort of compile medically-related news, which at this point is dominated by COVID-19, as everything else is. There’s a website called Medscape. There’s MedPage Today and Kaiser Health News. And … usually when a new study comes out, new information, you’ll see those reported in one or all of those outlets.

The second thing I would encourage people to do, and I know this sounds a little daunting, if you see a reference to a study that found “X,” don’t take it at face value.

I don’t want to insult reporters, but when you read an article about a study, the one thing that’s probably true is that the reporter hasn’t read that study. Find the hyperlink, read it, even if you only read the abstract and maybe look through a couple of tables. Find out what the authors of the study really said and what they did, not what your favorite Twitter feed or news outlet says the study says.

And finally, I’d say that there are a couple of people who have written very intelligently and write intelligently almost every day about it. Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins University has a Substack. And he’s very, very, very informative. And Vinay Prasad of the University of California in San Francisco. Those two, I think in addition to being trained in the field of medicine, which can’t hurt, also are very, very substantive and honestly present findings that are coming out daily about this pathogen.

Allen: Excellent. Doug Badger, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Doug, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you joining us today.

Thank you for having me.

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