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News brief: omicron variant, Biden's COVID strategy, abortion court case

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. is now one of two dozen countries that have confirmed cases of the omicron variant.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. The case was discovered in San Francisco, and experts had said it was only a matter of time before the variant was going to be found here.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Pien Huang is here to tell us more. So what do we know about this omicron case found in the U.S.?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, it was found in a San Francisco resident who had gone on a trip to South Africa and returned on November 22. They felt sick around Thanksgiving, got tested on the 28 and then a lab in California and the CDC confirmed that this person's COVID case was caused by omicron. California Governor Gavin Newsom offered a few details about the infected person.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: Fully vaccinated, not boosted. This individual has not been hospitalized. The individuals that this individual has come into contact with have not tested positive yet to our knowledge.

HUANG: The person had gotten two doses of the Moderna vaccine and wasn't eligible for a booster since it hadn't been six months. Now, even if this person doesn't spread the virus to others, omicron has now been found in some two dozen countries, and health officials say with global travel and the way the virus spreads, they do expect more cases to be found in the U.S.

MARTINEZ: Now, remind us what's so concerning about this variant.

HUANG: Well, it has a lot of mutations, and researchers looking at the virus' genetic code wonder if it might be more contagious. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser, says it's going to take some time to figure out if these concerns are warranted.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: In a matter of two weeks or 2 1/2, three weeks, we'll know a lot about transmissibility, about whether or not it essentially eludes some of the protection from things like monoclonal antibodies.

HUANG: Monoclonals are one of the treatments we have. Another big question is whether the vaccines we have still work well against the variant, and none of this is for sure yet. A lot of these answers will come from watching countries like South Africa, where omicron now seems to be dominant and cases are surging. Ali Mokdad, who tracks COVID at the University of Washington, says the U.S. may not be far behind.

ALI MOKDAD: Our expectation is it will take six to eight weeks to spread all over the United States, and if it is able to compete with delta, it will be definitely the main one circulating in the U.S. six to eight weeks.

MARTINEZ: OK, six to eight weeks, that sounds pretty quick. So if omicron does turn out to be more transmissible, are we doing enough to stop the spread?

HUANG: Well, the focus on this one U.S. case might remind people of the beginning of the pandemic, when one case turned to many, and hospitalizations and deaths soon followed. But Dr. Ali Khan, an epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska, says we're now in a much different place.

ALI KHAN: We now have vaccines available to us. We have testing available to us. And we have therapeutics available to us, and we know how to manage this disease with good old public health measures.

HUANG: And yesterday, President Biden said it's time to be concerned but not to panic. Shutdowns and lockdowns are not coming back. So Khan says vaccines and booster shots, distancing, quarantining, all of these tools layered on each other worked to stop the spread. And it's time to double down on everyone actually using them.

MARTINEZ: And wash your hands. NPR's Pien Huang, thank you very much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

MARTINEZ: All right. President Biden today will outline a new plan for dealing with COVID-19 this winter.

KING: Vaccines and testing are a big part of that plan. Only 59% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and it's not really clear what else the Biden administration can do to get those numbers up.

MARTINEZ: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here with a preview. So what will the president announce today?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, the biggest new thing is that if you have private insurance, you'll be able to get reimbursed for buying those home COVID tests. The federal government is going to require it. Right now, insurance companies have to cover tests done at pharmacies, doctor's offices, labs. But that's going to expand to the home rapid tests in the new year. There's a big emphasis in this plan on trying to get people to test more so that they know when they need to isolate to slow the spread. I had an exclusive interview last night with Natalie Quillian, the deputy White House COVID coordinator, and here's what she told me.

NATALIE QUILLIAN: We think this is the right policy. We also think it's the most economical policy because the costs of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any at-home rapid tests.

KEITH: The government is also going to buy another 25 million tests to give out at community health centers and rural clinics. You know, in the U.S., the market for these tests has been pretty shaky. There have been times when it was really hard to find them, especially during the delta surge. But in September, the White House spurred manufacturing of home tests with a $3 billion investment. And there's more of this.

MARTINEZ: And I remember the last time the president announced a plan - that was back in September - it was pretty dramatic. I mean, there was a new mandate for big companies. So any blockbuster announcements coming today?

KEITH: No major new mandates or targets for rapidly increasing the number of vaccinated Americans. Instead, Biden's plan to fight this virus this winter is a battle of increments - so family vaccine clinics, more free and lower cost home testing options, encouraging more businesses to require vaccines for their employees, stockpiling antiviral pills and readying strike teams to help states when there are outbreaks. They especially want to increase the number of people getting booster shots. In total, 100 million adults haven't yet gotten boosters, and those could help against the new variant. So expect to see ads, direct appeals. The White House is going to work with pharmacies and the AARP. There will also be hundreds of these new family vaccination clinics starting later this month. Here's how Quillian described them to me.

QUILLIAN: For working families, for busy moms and dads, this is a really hopefully convenient way where they can go get their booster and their kids' shot all at the same time.

KEITH: One-stop shopping. To be frank, the messaging on boosters coming out of this administration has been something of a muddle for a few weeks now, with a lot of people not realizing they could or should get a booster. With omicron, the message got a lot clearer - do it. Go get your booster.

MARTINEZ: How about for travelers? We've seen a ban on people from eight countries. Any more changes there?

KEITH: No new bans. The new thing for travelers will be that you have to get tested for COVID within 24 hours of leaving to come to the U.S. That will apply to Americans whether they're vaccinated or unvaccinated, as well as foreign travelers who have to be vaccinated. And the rule about wearing masks on planes and other public transportation here in the U.S., that is now going to be extended into March.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to roll back abortion rights.

KING: Right. The justices heard almost two hours of oral arguments yesterday. A majority of them signaled they may let stand a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks. Now, that would directly contradict decades of Supreme Court rulings.

MARTINEZ: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following this. The arguments got pretty heated at times, Sarah. What's at stake here?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, an awful lot, and that's why they did. The state of Mississippi is asking the Supreme Court to overturn decades of precedent that guarantee abortion rights, most notably the Roe v. Wade decision. So during the oral arguments yesterday, Mississippi's solicitor general, Scott Stewart, argued that there's no right to an abortion in the U.S. Constitution and that therefore states should be allowed to quote, "protect human life," as he puts it, by restricting abortion. And in one exchange, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor pushed back on that idea. She suggested that the debate about when life begins is essentially a religious question. And she asked why states should have a say in whether a woman is required to continue a pregnancy. So Stewart, with the state of Mississippi, acknowledged that there is a diversity of moral and philosophical views about this. And he said that's why each state should get to decide.

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SCOTT STEWART: Those are all reasons to return this to the people because the people should get to debate these hard issues. And this court does not in that kind of a circumstance...

SONIA SOTOMAYOR: So when does the life of a woman and putting her at risk enter the calculus?

MCCAMMON: And Sonia Sotomayor, the justice, noted that giving birth is more dangerous to a woman's health and life than a pre-viability abortion and that lower income women are especially vulnerable.

MARTINEZ: What did we hear from the more conservative judges?

MCCAMMON: Well, in general, their questions suggested they're open to significantly rolling back abortion rights. The question is how much and how? Chief Justice John Roberts was very focused on that viability standard. He wanted to know why 15 weeks wouldn't be long enough to get an abortion. And he seemed to be exploring whether there might be a way to uphold this Mississippi law while drawing a line line somewhere earlier in pregnancy short of fully overturning Roe v. Wade. Another conservative justice, Brett Kavanaugh, seemed open to overturning Roe altogether. In one of his questions, Kavanaugh pointed out that the Supreme Court has reversed precedent in several famous cases on issues from school desegregation to same-sex marriage.

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BRETT KAVANAUGH: In each of those cases - and that's a list and I could go on, and those are some of the most consequential and important in the court's history - the court overruled precedent.

MARTINEZ: Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the newest justice on the court. She's conservative, a Trump appointee. Did we get a sense where she's landing on this so far?

MCCAMMON: Barrett has a history of expressing strong opposition to abortion rights. She talked about adoption yesterday as an alternative to abortion and questioned the argument by abortion rights supporters that women rely on legal abortion to have equality in society. She showed some interest in Roberts' line of questioning about the viability standard, but it looks likely based on what we heard in these arguments that the court is poised to seriously curtail abortion rights. The question, again, is just how much and how quickly?

MARTINEZ: I mean, it feels like the country's on pins and needles waiting for a resolution on this. What happens next?

MCCAMMON: Well, if the court rules in favor of Mississippi, if the court overturns Roe, more than 20 states already have laws on the books that could ban or severely restrict abortion. States would have a lot more leeway, then, to pass new restrictions on the procedure. That decision is expected next summer, and between now and then, I'd be looking for lots of activity in state legislatures around this issue. Something else to watch is how this plays in the 2022 midterms, too.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thanks a lot.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.