President Joe Biden received the updated COVID-19 vaccine live on television Tuesday, urging Americans to protect themselves against the virus ahead of the anticipated winter surge but stopping short of encouraging mask-wearing.
Biden received the latest vaccine targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the omicron strain, the current versions of COVID-19 that are most prevalent in the country and globally. Public health officials in the U.S. recommend people over the age of 5 get the updated vaccine once a year — with the exception that the elderly and immunocompromised may need more than one shot annually.
“Get vaccinated. Update your COVID vaccine. It’s incredibly effective, but the truth is not enough people are getting it. We’ve got to change that so we can all have a safe and healthy holiday season,” the president said in a speech. “That’s why I’m getting my shot updated today.”
The bivalent COVID-19 boosters became available on Sept. 2, and people can find a location to get vaccinated on vaccines.gov. The vaccine helps those who can get it have the best protection against serious illness and death from the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the omicron subvariants. Biden said that people who refuse to get vaccinated even though they can are putting themselves and others at risk, especially right before the season that historically has more flu and COVID-19 cases.
“New variants have emerged here in the U.S. and around the world. We’ve seen cases of hospitalizations rise in Europe in recent weeks, and the weather is getting colder. People will spend more time indoors and contagious viruses like COVID are going to spread considerably more easily,” the president said.
“As a country, we have a choice to make,” he continued. “Can we repeat what happened in the past winters? More infections, more hospitalizations, more loved ones getting sick, even dying from the virus? Or can we have a much better winter, if we use all the tools we have available to us now?”
While the vaccine protects against hospitalization and death, people can still contract the virus — especially if they do not implement other mitigating measures like wearing a mask indoors and in crowds, and avoiding close contact with those who are infected or exposed. Biden encouraged people who are symptomatic or feel they’ve been exposed to get tested for COVID-19, and to receive treatment if they test positive.
Notably, the president did not once mention in his speech the idea of wearing masks ahead of the winter surge. Masks are important for preventing transmission, and can help disabled people safely move around in public knowing they are better protected from others. Over the course of this year, the country has lifted mask mandates in indoor public settings that would have allowed disabled people to participate in society.
The vaccine also does not necessarily prevent long COVID, a major health problem resulting from infection that disables a person due to a list of long-lasting symptoms ranging from fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, and nerve issues. The president did not specifically mention long COVID in his speech.
“I want to speak directly to those with special conditions. No variants may make some existing protections effective for the immunocompromised,” Biden said Tuesday. “Sadly, this means you may be at a special risk. I urge you to consult with doctors on the right steps to protect yourself. Take extra precautions.”
When asked why Biden did not mention the significance of masks or long COVID, a White House spokesman said it is “undeniable” that updated vaccines are the best protection against the virus.
When asked if the reason was due to worries about Republican reactions, the spokesman denied the notion, and has not yet answered HuffPost’s additional question about whether Biden plans to do more for disabled and immunocompromised people who are feeling left to fend for themselves.
COVID-19 “deaths :are: preventable using a layered mitigation strategy (high quality, protective masks; tests; indoor air quality improvements; vaccines; sick leave policy that doesn’t force sick folks to work; etc),” tweeted disability activist and Data for Progress fellow Matthew Cortland. “Yet, the [White House] continues this vaccine only strategy.”