Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 1, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:53 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay. On popular demand and request of the press corps, I’m joined today by Dr. Fauci, who will give a brief statement and then answer some questions. He does have a hard out a little bit after 2:00, so we’re going to get to as many questions as we possibly can.
With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Jen.
So, as some of you may have heard, the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health and the CDC have confirmed that a recent case of COVID-19 among an individual in California was caused by the Omicron variant.
Genomic sequencing was conducted at the University of California at San Francisco, and the sequence was confirmed at the CDC as being consistent with the Omicron variant. So, I know there are a lot of questions, but here is what we know right now.
The individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November the 22nd and tested positive on November the 29th. The individual is self-quarantining, and all close contacts have been contacted. And all close contacts, thus far, have tested negative.
The individual was fully vaccinated and experienced mild symptoms, which are improving at this point. So, this is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant detected in the United States.
And as all of you know, because we’ve been discussing this, we knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of Omicron would be detected in the United States.
And as you know, we know — I’ve been saying it and my colleagues on the medical team and others have been saying it: We know what we need to do to protect people: Get vaccinated if you’re not already vaccinated, get boosted if you’ve been vaccinated for more than six months with an mRNA or two months with J&J, and all the other things we’ve been talking about — getting your children vaccinated, masking in indoor congregate settings, et cetera.
Q Dr. Fauci —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m going to call on people. Go ahead, Zeke.
Q Thanks, Dr. Fauci. At this point, should Americans be changing anything they do in their day-to-day lives? Are you changing what you do? Is the President changing what he does?
DR. FAUCI: No, that’s — that’s a good question and an obvious question. But if you look at the things that we have been recommending, they’re just the same. And we want to keep doing that and make sure we pay close attention to that.
Q And are there other cases that the CDC is investigating as potential Omicron variants in the U.S. right now?
DR. FAUCI: To my knowledge at this point, no.
MS. PSAKI: Mary.
Q What should we take away from the fact that this person’s symptoms appear to be mild at this point? And have all the other travelers on the plane also been contacted?
DR. FAUCI: Well, this is what we call in medicine an “N equals one,” which means that you really can’t take anything away from a single patient. It is very — it’s — we feel good that this patient not only had mild symptoms, but actually the symptoms appear to be improving.
But as we’ve said, there’s a lot of information that is now evolving out of countries like South Africa that have a much larger number of individuals not only who are confirmed but individuals who are “probables,” which means they are going to have a lot of experience which we will benefit from here as the weeks go by.
Some of you have heard me say that in a matter of two weeks — or two and a half, 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; whether or not the disease itself, in general, is going to be severe; and what is the difference in an individual who’s been vaccinated versus unvaccinated, boostered versus not boosted. We’re going to get that information.
So, again, I appreciate your question about one individual, but we’re going to get — we’re going to get a lot more information.
MS. PSAKI: Kaitlan.
Q Thanks, Dr. Fauci. Two questions for you. One, you said this person had been fully vaccinated. Had they had a booster shot yet?
DR. FAUCI: To my knowledge, no, Kaitlan.
Q Okay. And under consideration, the CDC is considering having stricter testing requirements to get into the United States — a 24-hour window before taking off — but also is considering having a period of retesting once you get back to the United States. Would that have helped in this case if that was already in place?
DR. FAUCI: You know, I’m not so sure because this person did what we hope other people would do. They got off. And as soon as they became symptomatic, they went and got tested, and it was positive.
Q And so, when do you think those new requirements, when it comes to travelers, are actually going to be implemented, given clearly this is something that is already affecting the United States?
DR. FAUCI: Well, that’s obvious of all things that are being considered and under discussion, Kaitlan. I don’t think I can make any real statement about what — when and if that’s going to happen.
MS. PSAKI: Weijia.
Q Thank you. Dr. Fauci, in addition to any new testing requirements, what about new requirements for self-quarantining for travelers returning to the U.S., which, in this case, might have made a difference if he was quarantining for 7 to 14 days?
DR. FAUCI: You know, the recommendation is that — that people, individuals would self-quarantine if they are not vaccinated and would also get tested within a period of three days. That’s the recommendation right now.
Q And can you help us understand why the travel ban is effective right now for those particular eight countries, especially when Omicron has been detected in other countries, including right here in the U.S.?
DR. FAUCI: Well, if you go back and look at when we first found out about these cases that were emerging in South Africa, no one feels — I certainly don’t — that a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States, but we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what’s going on — what is the nature of this infection, what is the nature of the transmissibility.
And we wanted to make sure that we didn’t all of a sudden say, “It’s like anything else, don’t worry about it,” and then, all of a sudden, something unfolds in front of you that you’re really not prepared for. So, we look at this as a temporary measure.
MS. PSAKI: Tyler.
Q Thank you. Dr. Fauci, do you support a vaccine requirement for domestic flights? The President was asked about this earlier this week and said that that had not yet been recommended to him. You’re his chief medical advisor. Do you think that’s something the country should adopt?
DR. FAUCI: You know, I’m not so sure we should say that that would be a requirement. I would say what I’ve been saying all along — that we have 60 million people in this country who are not vaccinated who are eligible to be vaccinated. Let’s get them vaccinated. Let’s get the people who are vaccinated boosted. Let’s get the children vaccinated. That’s where we want to go, as opposed to a requirement.
Q Wouldn’t some people say that, you know, you have extinguished many of your options to, you know, get those people vaccinated and this is one of the ways — as the OSHA mandate has held up in court, this would maybe be a way to push more people to get vaccinated?
DR. FAUCI: You know, that’s a possibility. But I think for the people who are listening to this, we, again, talk about why it’s important to get vaccinated.
I think what’s happening now is another example of why it’s important for people to get vaccinated who’ve not been vaccinated.
But also boosting — boosting is really very important. Because the data that we get on boosting — if you look at the level, for example, of a antibody — a neutralizing antibody peak following the second dose of a two-dose mRNA, it’s like at this level. If you look at the peak following the third shot boost, it goes way up here.
And people ask: Why is that important? Because our experience with variants, such as the Delta variant, is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection even against a variant that the vaccine wasn’t specifically directed at.
And that’s the reason why we feel, even though we don’t have a lot of data on it, there’s every reason to believe that that kind of increase that you get with the boost would be helpful at least in preventing severe disease of a variant like Omicron.
MS. PSAKI: Peter.
Q Dr. Fauci, as you know, a lot of Americans right now are shopping for the best sort of boost or whatever they can get. And given the fact that manufacturers and scientists are racing to learn more about this variant and then to modify a vaccine that would more directly combat it right now — first, for those who already received their boost, how long would it be for them before conceivably they could have a new modified booster that will more directly target this?
And is there any reason those individuals should wait, given the White House has said it will be a couple of months perhaps before we have a more mald- — modified vaccine that more directly targets it?
DR. FAUCI: Great question, because we get asked it a lot and it’s a relevant question.
So, right now, I would not be waiting — people say, “Well, if we’re going to have a va- — a
booster-specific [variant-specific] vaccine should we wait?” If you are eligible — namely, six months with a double mRNA dose or two months for the J&J — get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost.
We’re preparing for the possibility that we need a variant-specific boost, and that’s what the companies are doing. We have been — the administration has been in contact with the pharmaceutical companies to go ahead and take the steps in case we need it.
But the mistake people would make is to say, “Let me wait and see if we get one.”
If you’ve eligible for boosting, get boosted right now.
MS. PSAKI: Sabrina.
Q Thank you, Dr. Fauci. A follow-up to Tyler’s question, because there is screening in place for international travel but we see how quickly variants can spread once they reach our shores. Is there — does the science not suggest that there should, at a minimum, be a testing requirement for domestic air travel? And if not, why not?
DR. FAUCI: Well, again, that’s some- — these kinds of things we always talk about and consider. But, right now, I’m not so sure we need a testing for an air travel in this country.
I always get back to the fact — is that people should wind up getting vaccinated and boosted if they’re eligible for a boost. I keep coming back to that because that’s really the solution to this problem.
MS. PSAKI: Jenny.
Q Two quick ones. Moderna executives have said in the past couple of days that this variant appears threatening and may demand new vaccines. What do you make of those remarks that seem a lot more alarmist than the administration’s view or other vaccine makers?
DR. FAUCI: Well, I think — I think — I know — (laughs) — that we don’t have enough information right now. As you know — and we’ve said this — that the profile of — the molecular profile of the kinds of mutations that you see would suggest, A, that it might be more transmissible and that it might elude some of the protection of vaccines, but we don’t know that now. We don’t know what the — what the constellation of mutations are actually going to be.
We have to be prepared that there’s going to be a diminution in protection, which is the reason why I keep getting back — over and over again — and say why it’s so important to get boosted.
But I think any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant — it is too early to say. And I think we need to be careful, because I know you’re going to be reading a lot of tweets and a lot of comments about this. We’re really very early in the process.
Q Say —
MS. PSAKI: Steve —
Q Say though this is more — this proves more transmissible but less virulent than Delta. Would there be any public health benefit to furthering its spread by lifting travel restrictions, for example, so it could outcompete the Delta variant?
DR. FAUCI: You’re talking about something really dangerous. You’re talking about, “Let a lot of people get infected to see if in fact you could protect them.” That’s something that I think almost all infectious disease people with any knowledge about infectious disease would not say that’s a good idea.
MS. PSAKI: Steve.
Q Dr. Fauci, we are firmly in the holiday season, and a lot of Americans are wondering whether it’s safe — even if they’ve been vaccinated — to go to a cocktail party without a mask, with a glass of eggnog in their hand. What’s your advice to them?
DR. FAUCI: Well, the advice is — what I follow myself and what I tell people to do is that: Get vaccinated.
I’m going to get to your question. I’m not eluding you.
Get vaccinated, number one. If you need — if you’re eligible for a boost, get boosted.
And in a situation with the — the holiday season, indoor-type settings with family that you know was vaccinated, people that you know, you could feel safe with not wearing a mask and having a dinner or having a reception.
But when you are in a public congregate setting in which you do not know the status of the vaccination of the people involved, it is very prudent to wear a mask. And that’s what I do.
MS. PSAKI: Peter.
Q Despite the eggnog?
Q Thank you —
DR. FAUCI: Well, you know, obviously, you mean — unless you have a special kind of mask that I don’t know about. (Laughter.)
The fact is — sure, when you’re eating and when you’re drinking, take the mask down. But to the — to the extent possible, keep it on when you’re in an indoor congregate setting.
MS. PSAKI: Peter.
Q Dr. Fauci, as you advise the President about the possibility of new testing requirements for people coming into this country, does that include everybody?
DR. FAUCI: The answer is yes. Because you know that the new — the new regulation — if you want to call it that — is that anybody and everybody who’s coming into the country needs to get a test within 24 hours of getting on the plane to come here.
Q But what about people who don’t take a plane and just — these border crossers coming in in huge numbers in a sense?
DR. FAUCI: You know, but that’s a different issue. For example, when you talk — we still have Title 42, with regard to protection at the border. So there are protections at the border — that you don’t have the capability, as you know, of somebody getting on a plane, getting checked, looking at a passport. We don’t have that there. But we can get some degree of mitigation.
Q Is there something to do to test these people somewhere else before they get here?
DR. FAUCI: There — no, there — there is testing at the border under certain circumstances, as you know.
MS. PSAKI: Michael.
Q Free testing for everyone?
MS. PSAKI: Michael.
Q Doctor, two questions. First, for folks in California — I know this is only one case — but what’s your message to them? Should they be particularly concerned?
And secondly, with your emphasis on boosters, why not make a determination that it’s in the interest of public health for the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include that additional dose?
DR. FAUCI: Okay, so for the people in California — we’ve been in contact with the public health officials in California. I’m not sure exactly what they’re going to say but I’m pretty sure they’re going to say, “Just do all of the mitigation, all of the things that we have been talking about up to now.”
For those who have not been doing that, start doing that. For those who have been, continue doing that.
Q And then, in terms of making a determination that —
DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I mean —
Q — “fully vaccinated”?
DR. FAUCI: Again, there is the official determination of what something is for a variety of reasons. For example, employment and getting vaccinated — what is the definition? That will stay that way.
For optimal protection — I’m talking about what — your personal effort to be optimally protected. That’s why I say we should all get boosters.
Q But what about in terms of the mandate? Like, you have a vaccine mandate.
DR. FAUCI: Right.
Q At what point does the booster become part of the mandate?
DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I can’t answer that right now. But I know that, for the time being, the official definition of “fully vaccinated” is two.
Q But do you see that changing? We keep having these variants. We’re concerned about them.
DR. FAUCI: It — it could change.
Q Are you concerned — it could change?
DR. FAUCI: It could change. It could change, yes.
Q Would you recommend a change?
DR. FAUCI: Well, I don’t know. Let’s see what rolls out now. I mean, I know if I say it’s going to change, it’s going to get spread out — that that’s it. We don’t know right now whether it should change, but it might.
MS. PSAKI: Chris.
Q Question on quarantining for international visitors: Do you think international visitors — that when they arrive in the U.S. should quarantine for seven days, regardless of vaccination status?
DR. FAUCI: Well, you know, there are certain requirements for people who — you’re talking about foreign visitors?
DR. FAUCI: Yeah —
Q Going forward. Should it be a new requirement?
DR. FAUCI: Obviously, if they are, they have to — they have to get tested within 24 hours. And when they come back, if they’re not vaccinated, they have to be in quaran- — they’re recommended for quarantine and recommended to get a test within three days.
Q Even if they are vaccinated —
DR. FAUCI: Yes.
Q I’m sorry. If they are vaccinated —
DR. FAUCI: No —
Q — should they quarantine?
DR. FAUCI: Well, again — we’re going to get confused here. Are you’re talking about United States citizens or are you talking about anybody that comes into the country —
DR. FAUCI: — from anywhere?
I’m not sure what that’s going to be. I think we’ll have to just check with the CDC.
MS. PSAKI: Karen.
Q Thanks, Jen. Dr. Fauci, there are reports that — in a new book, former President Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows says that the President — then-President tested positive for COVID three days before the debate with President Biden. Were you aware of that positive test at the time?
And do you think, given what Meadows says, that he put then-candidate Biden at risk at that debate?
DR. FAUCI: Well, I certainly was not aware of his test positivity or negativity.
Q And do you think he put President Biden at risk?
DR. FAUCI: I’m not going to specifically talk about who put who at risk.
But I would say — as I’ve said not only for an individual but for everybody — that if you test positive, you should be quarantining yourself.
Q Dr. Fauci, just to follow on that quickly, if I may, President Trump’s doctor — who you worked with at the time, Dr. Sean Conley — was aware of that, according to Mark Meadows, who you also worked with during that time. And yet, former President Trump continued to go out in public events.
Based on your medical advice, is that something that you would have recommended if he had tested positive?
DR. FAUCI: Well, I would recommend to anyone, whether it’s the President or any of my patients or any of the people that I deal with, that if you test positive, you should be prudent and quarantine yourself.
MS. PSAKI: Christian.
Q Dr. Fauci —
MS. PSAKI: Christian. In the back. Go ahead.
Q Dr. Fauci, with all due respect, there’s zero case of COVID — of Omicron case in Zimbabwe, in Namibia, in Lesotho, in Mozambique. What justified imposing a travel ban on countries that have zero case of the Omicron variant?
DR. FAUCI: You know, that’s a very good question and important question, and we did struggle with that. But we wanted to see if we could bide time temporarily. So, I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. I think we got to —
Q (Inaudible) from countries that have zero cases —
MS. PSAKI: We have to keep going so we can get more people.
Q Thank you, Dr. Fauci.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Last week, the governor of New York signed an executive order to postpone elective hospital surgeries to prepare for the Omicron variant.
I know that you and your team are being proactive as we try to learn more about this, but do you believe that some states might be going too far too quickly before we know too much?
DR. FAUCI: You know, I really don’t want to comment on the situation in individual states because there are so many factors from state to state that are different. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment whether a state should or should not postpone elective surgeries.
Q And then the President said that we will defeat this variant of the coronavirus not with lockdowns or shutdowns but based off of, you know, the tools that we have now. Is there anything that we are, you know, taking into this new variant experience based off of some of the adverse effects of some of those lockdowns? I mean, we just passed, I think, 100,000 overdose deaths for the first time ever.
DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I mean, first of all, we always discuss things that we might do to better our preparation, better our response. That’s something we discuss every single day.
But, right now, what I’ve always said and I’ll continue to say: Let’s utilize and implement the tools that we have. Because if we had done that — if we had the overwhelming majority of people in this country vaccinated and those who needed to be boosted, boosted — our vulnerability would be much less than it is right now.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Brian, last one. And then we got to let him go.
Q Dr. Fauci, what do you see as an endgame? In the ’17 — 1917, 1918 flu pandemic, it eventually evolved until it was less lethal. But there are those who are saying that we’re never going to get that far with this virus because we need more people vaccinated. What do you see as the endgame?
DR. FAUCI: I mean, the endgame — which we hope and I think will occur — is that as we get more people vaccinated — not only in this country but globally — we will see a situation where viruses will not have the opportunity — what they have right now is to essentially freely distribute and freely circulate in society, both domestic society and global society.
The more protection you get with vaccines, the less likelihood a virus has to do that, the less likelihood a virus has to mutate, the less likely you’re going to get a variant.
So, one of the things that we need to do about our long endgame is to do the things we’ve been saying every single day, not only for ourselves but internationally.
And, you know, we have done a lot and we’ll continue to do a lot to get low- and middle-income countries vaccinated.
Q Do you think it will evolve into something less lethal?
DR. FAUCI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah — I mean, there’s no doubt that this will end. I promise you that: This will end.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Dr. Fauci.
MS. PSAKI: Sorry, we have to let Dr. Fauci go. I appreciate you.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you for coming. Appreciate it.
Q Can you guys say if it’s a man or woman, Jen? Are you able to tell us if it’s a man or a woman?
MS. PSAKI: Not additional details, but they’re going to be doing a press conference in California where they may have additional details to share.
I know we have a bit of a crowded day today, so we’ll get to as many people as possible and we’ll let people know when they need to gather.
So, just a couple of light things at the — a couple of — not light, but a couple — few things at the top.
I’m sure everyone saw the red ribbon on the North Portico marking World AIDS Day, honoring the 36 million people, including 700,000 Americans who’ve lost their lives due to HIV/AIDS.
Earlier today, we released an updated national strategy for ending the HIV epidemic in the United States by 2030. This is a national plan to reenergize a whole-of-society response to the epidemic while reducing the terrible toll of this disease and supporting those living with HIV.
The President remains deeply committed to ensuring that those with HIV are treated with equity and dignity. And I know he’ll have more to say soon.
I also wanted to note a little bit of supply chain news. We announced, in October, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach worked with our administration and our Port Envoy, John Porcari, and announced a plan to cut down the number of days containers sit on the docks by charging ocean carriers a fee that escalates the longer a container sits on the dock.
The good news is the result of the fee announcement alone, which hasn’t even been implemented yet, has been pretty remarkable.
The average time a container sits on the dock is back down — is on track to be back down to where it was when the President took office in January and lower than it was in November of last year.
This means we’re getting goods faster to delivery trucks; faster to shelves; faster, of course, to people’s homes. The fee has not even been implemented yet, so it is the — the fear of the fee, I suppose, that has prompted these steps.
Also, just wanted to note the Vice President is convening the Biden-Harris administration’s inaugural Space Council meeting today. She will be announcing five new members of the Council, including the Secretaries of Education, Labor, Agriculture, and the Interior, as well as the Climate Advisor; and will also be announcing the release of the Space Priorities Framework.
With that, Zeke, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. And, first of all, happy birthday.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you.
Q Happy birthday!
MS. PSAKI: Twenty-five feels really good guys — (laughter) — as you all know, so I appreciate it.
Q On the topic of COVID, can you tell us when is the last time the President was tested for the virus and if there’s been any change to the protocols surrounding his testing?
And then, just a request on behalf of all of us for some more regular updates on how frequently the President is tested and the outcome of those tests.
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. The President was tested on Monday. His test was negative. We can venture to provide you regular updates on that. Nothing has changed on the protocols.
Q Thanks. Secretary of State Blinken, earlier today, said that the U.S. was willing to impose new sanctions on Russia — that it hasn’t been willing to impose before — if it were to invade more of Ukraine.
What are those additional sanctions that the U.S. is considering? And, sort of, have there been other messages that you’ve been communicating to Moscow to prevent that action from happening?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Secretary Blinken made those comments. He’s in Europe now, and meeting with European counterparts and our NATO partners and Allies. He noted — in his remarks, he detailed his concerns and conveyed that the United States, as you noted, Zeke, has been engaging intensely on this issue with our Allies and partners, including, of course, on this trip.
We’ve also been in touch directly with the Ukrainians, as well as the Russians.
In terms of what the tools would be: We have demonstrated from the beginning of this administration that we are willing to use a number of tools — economic tools and other tools — to address harmful Russian actions.
The Secretary made clear today that we would not hesitate for making use of those tools, but we’re going to do that in coordination — in close coordination with our partners and Allies.
So, I don’t have anything else to preview for you today.
Q And then, finally, the President said he hadn’t seen the Supreme Court arguments today in the abortion case. Has — is he going to get a briefing from somebody on how arguments went? And given that some — a majority of Justices seemed inclined to let that Mississippi law stay in place, what step is the White House taking to act in case that law stays in place and if Roe itself is overturned?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would note, as I think many of you have experienced, the President has had quite a busy schedule today. And of course, he will be updated and briefed by his team on those arguments. I know we were all impressed by the strong argument in defense of — for the protection of Roe v. Wade and the woman’s right to choose made by the Solicitor General during the hearings this morning.
I would note that the President believes — since you gave me the opportunity — that the Mississippi law blatantly violates women’s constitutional rights to safe and legal abortions. This case presents a grave threat to women’s fundamental rights, to all of our rights — as protected under Roe v. Wade for nearly half a century. Every woman — every American deserves access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, and the President is deeply committed to the constitutional right.
As we’ve outlined before and as he’s mentioned before, he’s committed to working with Congress to codify the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, as protected by Roe and subsequent Supreme Court precedent.
He’s announced his strong support for passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act and urges Congress to pass it.
So we will continue to advocate for that, Zeke.
Q Thank you, Jen. A quick question on — and a follow- up on what Dr. Fauci said. He said especially the African countries where the variant has been found — or hasn’t been found, you know, those — the restrictions hopefully should come off.
At the same time, there are all these other countries, you know — I mean, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Germany — where the variant has been found. Is the administration actually planning to go ahead to include these countries in its travel restrictions? Or is the idea to sort of pause, wait for more data, and then sort of wait and see what the next step is?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Nandita, the President is briefed every day by his COVID team. And we’ll continue to assess, based on their recommendations, any additional steps that need to be taken.
As the — as Dr. Fauci noted, there’s a lot we don’t know. So putting in place these travel restrictions was intended to give us more time to do the necessary evaluation, data, and testing required that our health experts are working around the clock to do. And they made this assessment and recommendation about the countries in this — in — where we would put in place these travel restrictions in order to give us that time.
But whether additional countries could be added, we will continue to assess.
And obviously, our objective is to not have any of these be permanent. We want to learn more information, know more information, but the President is always going to err on the side of protecting the American people.
Q And just a quick follow-up on that. So the couple of countries where there haven’t been any cases found, I mean, are you quickly moving forward with the decision on whether you want to lift the travel ban?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we’re going to continue to assess what steps need to be taken to protect the American people. This was not a political decision. It was based on the advice, recommendations of the health and medical team.
The President accepted that advice. He put in place those restrictions. And he’s always going to err on the side of protecting the American people.
But, of course, as we learn more information, we’re going to continue to assess what additional steps should be taken.
Q And then a —
Q Sorry. A quick — one follow-up, Jen, on gasoline prices.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q We’ve sort of been looking at retail and wholesale gasoline prices for a while now. And a Reuters analysis shows that, you know, the price gap has gone up to $1.40. This is despite the President’s calls to companies to reduce that gap. They’re clearly not paying attention. And we’re wondering what more the White House can actually do to get them to comply with what the White House is asking.
MS. PSAKI: Well, you’re right, the price at the pump usually moves alongside the price of refined gas. But recently, as you noted, there’s been a split where the price of refined gas is going down but prices at the pump are going up.
That’s exactly why the President sent the letter to the FTC last week, because that’s not what we should see as the trend. There shouldn’t be price gouging across the country. You shouldn’t have oil CEOs bragging out there about the profits that they benefit from when prices are high at the gas pump.
The FTC, as you know, is an independent agency that has the discretion and the tools to look into whether anti-consumer conduct is occurring in the market. So, I’d certainly point you to them. But we’ll continue to raise this issue.
The President sent a letter last week, as you know, asking them to look into this.
Q But the FTC is a long-term solution. Right, Jen? Anything immediate?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, the FTC — as an independent agency, I’d point you to them.
Q Thanks, Jen. Has the President been briefed on this first case of the Omicron variant? And who briefed him?
MS. PSAKI: He has been briefed. Again, he meets with his medical team every day.
Q So — but was he briefed this afternoon or this morning on the first case?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he has a regular briefing with his — I’m not sure if it was this morning or afternoon. He’ll receive more detail, but he is aware and has received the initial information on the first case.
Q Thank you. And Secretary Blinken’s comments today about Russia preparing, essentially, to invade Ukraine, though they don’t know if Putin has made the decision to do so — does President Biden have plans to speak with President Putin in the coming days?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any calls or engagements between them to preview. I would say we are in touch with Russian officials at a range of levels. We have been clear about our concerns about their bellicose rhetoric, as well as the reported troop buildup at the border. And that message has been sent clearly.
Also, it’s very public that we’ve been in touch and engaging with our European partners and allies about what steps we would take should they choose to make that move forward.
Q On the issue of quarantines: Dr. Fauci touched on this a bit, noting that they are still a recommendation for some —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — but can you explain further why they aren’t being mandated or why that isn’t up for consideration?
MS. PSAKI: You know, we are — we base decisions on the recommendations of our health and medical advisors. Obviously, there are recommendations that have been made — as you saw the CDC statement last night — recommendations versus requirements. Sometimes a challenge is implementation and how you would implement things. But we’re going to continue to rely on them for advice and make decisions about what policies should be announced.
Can I note one thing, because the President is obviously speaking tomorrow to outline his winter plan? You’ve seen some reported components that you may hear about more tomorrow, but I would also note for all of you as you’re thinking about what to expect — some of you have asked — that really this is also about, you know, not just requirements and restrictions — many of which we’ve announced; some we’ve announced and we wanted to act quickly on — but also about how to make vaccines and boosters more readily available and build on the plan we have already put in place.
And as you heard Dr. Fauci say many, many times — even just standing here — that is a key part of our plan. And you will hear him talk about that tomorrow. So that’s a piece you can expect.
Q And, on the issue of government funding, you mentioned that the administration of course is in contact with leaders from both parties in Congress, but just, right now, are you confident that we are not going to see a shutdown at the end of this week?
MS. PSAKI: That’s what we are working towards. Obviously, it requires Congress to prevent that from happening. But we have every confidence they will move forward and prevent government from shutting — the government from shutting down.
Q One more. Has the President reached out yet to the families of the students that were killed in yesterday’s school shooting?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any calls to read out at this point in time. I will check and see if there’s any updates on that for you. We have been in touch with state and local authorities offering our assistance.
Of course, our condolences — as you saw the President say yesterday, our heart goes out to this community and these families.
And, you know, as a parent myself, I think you watch this news and this coverage and it — it really just sticks with you.
So — go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. Was President Biden made aware that in the days before the debate with former President Trump that Trump tested positive? Did anybody relay that message to him?
MS. PSAKI: We were not aware of the reports that were out this morning in advance, no.
Q Okay. Anything to add about what he is thinking now that he knows that, you know, Trump had tested positive and they were in such close quarters just a few days after?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think — for people who are watching at home — obviously, this debate occurred more than a year ago. And, as you know, the President is very health — healthy, as you saw the — our release of his — of his medical report from last week. And he is tested regularly, as Zeke asked about.
But I would note what is not lost on us is that no one should be surprised that currently in Congress, as we’re looking at the government staying open, you have supporters of the former President — supporters of the former President who withheld information, reportedly, about testing positive and appeared, apparently, at a debate; also held events at the White House, reportedly, with military veterans and military families, reportedly — many of you covered, so you could — you could confirm that; and did that without disclosing.
And these supporters of this — of the former President are advocating for shutting the federal government down so that 20 percent of the public who are refusing to get vaccinated or tested can be free to infect their coworkers, our children, filling hospitals that they — that that is what they are advocating for.
They want to shut the government down in order to advocate for people to assert that on society. So, I don’t think that should be lost on us as we’re looking at these reports this morning either.
Q And one question on the messaging around vaccines and boosters — because initially, I think it was, you know: “Get the vaccine for protection.” And people interpreted it as “protection from catching COVID.”
But given the number of breakthrough cases we are seeing, is the message evolving to: “Get the vaccine and booster so you don’t die or so you don’t get really sick, because you’ll probably catch it”?
I mean, I just — I’m trying to understand how we should be thinking about the vaccine and boosters now, given how many breakthrough cases there are.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Weijia, I think this has been the case for several months now — that our — the messaging from our health and medical experts and, therefore, as a result, from all of us, has been that the vaccines and, of course, the boosters can have an enormous impact on protecting you from serious illness and death, that there will be breakthrough cases.
But I can tell you myself that there is a big difference from getting COVID and having a mild case and being in the hospital and on a ventilator or infecting people in your community.
So, that has been our message for several months now to people across the country. There will be breakthrough cases, but, certainly, preventing hospitalization and preventing death is a significant value of these vaccines and the subsequent boosters that are now available across the public.
Q And one quick one —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, go ahead.
Q — on World AIDS Day. Ahead of today, the British government announced they would begin to allow people who have tested positive for HIV to join the armed forces if they no longer have detectable cases. Is President Biden considering revising the ban on HIV-positive people or lifting it?
MS. PSAKI: I would really point you to the Department of Defense. I’m happy to see if there’s anything new from them on that front.
Go ahead, Peter.
Q Thank you, Jen. Happy birthday.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you.
Q The President talks about how –-
MS. PSAKI: You better ask me a really hard question now, otherwise –-
MS. PSAKI: — conspiracy theories out there.
Q I’ve got like three. (Laughter.)
So President Biden talks about how respecting the rule of law is one of America’s most cherished values. Does that mean that he’s going to stop pushing for these vaccine mandates for workers now that federal courts are saying that they don’t know if they’re legal?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let’s just — let’s just clarify exactly what we’re talking about here. There are vaccine requirements that –- and testing — a lot of companies do requirement for — to be vaccinated or tested that companies across the country have been putting in place for months.
Recent polling by USA Today and other outlets have suggested that 60 percent of businesses are moving forward on putting these requirements in place. You know why? Because it makes sure they have a healthier workplace. It makes people feel more confident in going back to work — something that a lot of employers, as they’re trying to hire, have had issues with. And that they’re moving forward and putting in place additional requirements or additional steps to protect their workforce. That’s absolutely their right to do.
There are court cases right now — something that the Department of Justice is fighting — and we are confident in our ability, given it’s based on a 50-year law — these OSHA requirements. And the implementation date is in early January.
But what should be clear to people out there is that private sector companies, many of whom are just putting in place steps to protect their workforces, have every right to do that. That helps their workforce. That helps the economy. And that’s something we certainly support and advocate for people doing.
Q Okay. To the questions from earlier about messaging, what ever happened to President Biden’s promise to shut down the virus?
MS. PSAKI: We’re working on it, Peter.
Q There’s another variant here. Is the idea that you want people now to kind of wrap their heads around that the President, instead of shutting down the virus, is going to try to help people live amidst the virus and go about their lives but COVID is going to be here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Peter, what’s very important for people to understand and all of you are communicating to the public about what steps they can take to go back to normal or go back to normal life — something everybody wants to do.
We’re all sick and tired of this virus, but we need approximately 20 percent of the population or more people than are currently vaccinated to go get vaccinated and go get boosted.
What we can do as the federal government is make those vaccines free, make the boosters free, make them available. The President will talk more about what we’re going to do tomorrow. But we need the American people to do more — who are not vaccinated — to help us continue to fight the virus.
Q Last one. A lot of talk about the first Trump-Biden debate today, but at the second one in 2021, when roughly 220,000 Americans had already died of COVID. Joe Biden said about Trump, “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America.” Is that still the standard now that more Americans have died under President Biden than President Trump?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the fundamental question here is: What are you doing to save lives and protect people? And the former President was suggesting people inject bleach. He apparently, reportedly, didn’t even share with people he was going to interact with that he had tested positive for COVID himself. He continued to provide a forum for misinformation, which probably led to people not getting — not taking steps forward to get — to protect themselves, to wear a mask, to eventually get vaccinated.
This President has made the vaccine widely available. He’s relied on the health — the advice of his health and medical experts. And he is trying to be a part of solving this crisis — getting the pandemic under control. And I think there’s a pretty stark difference between their approaches.
Q Jen, some Democrats have been pushing the President to suspend the federal gas tax as a way to show concern about inflation right now. Would President Biden support or consider a suspension of the federal gas tax?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of that being under consideration.
Q Thank you. You just said that one of the reasons to get vaxed and boosted is not only to protect yourself against serious illness and death, but also to protect — to prevent infecting people in your community. Are you saying that people who are vaccinated cannot pass the virus on to people in their community?
MS. PSAKI: I wasn’t suggesting that, but I think there’s no question that people who are unvaccinated will more easily get the virus than people who are vaccinated. We know that from data.
Q No, I’m talking about passing it on, not getting it. You’re sa- —
MS. PSAKI: I understand, but, again, people who are unvaccinated, who have not received a vaccination in communities — of course they are going to be transmissible out there in communities. They can get the virus and pass it along. That was the point I was making.
Q Okay. And one question about Build Back Better, which is being negotiated in the Senate still, including the SALT deduction.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The President has said he wouldn’t sign any tax hikes on people making less than $400,000 a year. Is he also committed to ruling out any tax cuts for people making more than $400,000 a year?
MS. PSAKI: His bar continues to be: He’s not raising taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year. There are ongoing negotiations, as you know, about the SALT deduction — not something the President proposed, but something leaders have conveyed at different times; there’s obviously support for.
And we obviously want to get this legislation moving forward. We expect the final legislation will address some of the most unfair results of the 2017 tax law SALT provision, particularly its impact on middle-class taxpayers and the uncertainty it caused. And the President expects it to be fully paid for.
But again, his bar has not changed. We, of course, want to cut taxes for people — middle-class families across the –-
Q Including people who make over $400,000?
MS. PSAKI: Again, this is not a proposal that the President proposed himself, but it is something –-
MS. PSAKI: — as you know, that there’s support for different versions of it in Congress. It’s currently being negotiated. Our objective is not raising taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year and cutting costs.
Q But can you explain why a tax cut for someone making more than $400,000 is still somehow commensurate with his values of protecting middle-class people? It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would he —
MS. PSAKI: How does it not — how does it not make sense?
Q Why would it be okay to give a tax cut for someone making more than $400,000?
MS. PSAKI: Is that raising taxes on somebody making less than $400,000?
Q No. So, that’s all you’d promise? Just no tax hikes for somebody under $400,000. Tax cuts for people over that — that’s possible.
MS. PSAKI: I think the totality of the bill, which is the most important piece here, is cutting costs for the American people — for childcare, for eldercare, for healthcare, putting in place a historic universal pre-K program. That’s exactly why the President proposed and is supporting this bill.
He also knows we have small margins in Congress, so there are some components — he didn’t propose the SALT deduction. It’s being discussed right now and negotiated. We’ll see what the final outcome and package looks like.
Q Jen, the pool is being asked to gather for the President’s — so, I don’t know if you can stick around a little bit longer.
MS. PSAKI: Sure, I can. And the pool will just depart. Nothing is wrong. Everything is good.
Okay. Michael, go ahead.
Q In terms of — on Monday, you gave an update, in terms of members of the COVID Response Team being in touch with state and local public health officials, epidemiologists — do you have an update on those communications?
And also, does the President plan to speak with anyone in California now that this case has been identified?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have been in constant contact with local and public health officials from our health and medical team. So that is not — that was not a one-time deal; it’s been continuous. And that’s how we are going to continue to track and trace any cases that come up and make sure that that information is provided publicly to all of you. And that typically happens with public health — our medical experts and health officials. I’m not — I don’t have any calls with the President to public health officials to predict for you.
Go ahead — go ahead in the middle.
Q Yes. Yes, Jen. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead — in the pink sweater.
Q President Biden indicated on Monday that expanding testing would also be part of the winter plan for COVID. Can you go into any more detail as to what that will look like?
MS. PSAKI: He’ll certainly have more to say about this tomorrow. I would note that one of the questions a couple people asked the other day. And I didn’t understand in the right way, so let me just use this moment to clarify, is that — is about sequencing as a part of testing. So — and I just wanted to note that we expect any emergence of Omicron in the United States to be identified quickly, as we are sequencing now almost 80,000 samples per week — more than any other country. And just to give you a point of reference, that’s up from approximately 8,000 at the beginning of this year.
So, we’re going to continue to increase testing. That’s something we obviously recognize as a key component of fighting the virus, but I don’t have anything more to preview at this point in time.
Q And just one more. Does the President believe that he lifted travel restrictions too early on Europe and other countries earlier this year? Does he wish that he had held off, in terms of lifting those?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think the President looks in the rearview mirror in that regard. We obviously continue to rely on the advice of our health and medical experts, and I would note that where we’ve put in place restrictions are primary — are not those countries, so I’m not sure that that totally makes sense.
Q Thanks, Jen. Is the White House discussing the possibility of asking Congress for additional COVID relief funds to deal with the Omicron variant? And is that something the White House right now thinks it might be necessary?
MS. PSAKI: Not at this moment do we think so, but we have ongoing conversations with Congress just to make sure we keep the door open to whatever may be needed.
And I would just say, Karen, as you know, that as we look and we’re trying to seek — we’re seeking more information from our health and medical experts, as they’re doing this testing, and we’re assessing what options may be needed: Do we need a different — a tweak to the vaccines or to the boosters? We don’t know we need that now, but we are preparing for a range of options, and that includes conversations about Congress — should we keep the door open — and we are as prepared as possible to respond.
Q So, there’s no dollar amounts now that you’ve been tossing out there until you get more information on the variant?
MS. PSAKI: Not at this point that I’m aware of. Exactly.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Okay, okay. We got to wrap up. Go ahead. One more.
Q Thank you, Jen. Happy birthday to you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you very much.
Q I want to ask about Bangladesh.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q The country is running by authoritarian regime more than a decade. And main opposition and first woman prime minister of Bangladesh now is in a life-and-death situation. She was in jail. According to State Department report, it’s a political ploy to remove her from the political process. So, what is your comment to the Bangladesh authority, or what is your observation on this situation there as the former prime minister and main opposition leader is in a life-and-death situation?
She’s not getting proper treatment, and government is not allowing her to go abroad as the civil society group, political party, and her family urge her to go back — to shift her abroad for the better treatment. So, may I ask a comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. I appreciate your question. I haven’t had a chance to talk to our national security team about this issue, so let me do that. And I’d also point to the State Department who would be in close touch with authorities there and may have a more detailed comment.
Thank you, everyone. I’m going to leave for World AIDS Day events.
2:49 P.M. EST