Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 21, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:15 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Okay. You know how we love visual aids here, so we wanted to have a few for all of you. I don’t have anything at the top. And they’ll pull these up in a moment as we talk about COVID, which I assume we will talk about during this briefing.
But we — and we will keep you all — make sure you have plenty of time to get set for the President’s remarks. He’s running a little bit late today, so we’ll let you know once we have an update.
But, Colleen, why don’t you kick us off.
Q Okay. Thanks, Jen. So, first off, how is the President feeling, given close contact? Is he symptomatic? Is he doing okay? I know he’s getting tested tomorrow, but can you give us an update?
MS. PSAKI: He’s asymptomatic. I spent several hours with him this morning, and he is feeling great. And you’ll see him at the speech shortly.
Q And then, second question is: The 500 million test kits that are being distributed in January — you know, is that going to be enough? How are you guys going to work to get more, given what looks to be a really serious testing kit shortage right now, especially as Omicron is cresting?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. So, what the President is annou- — is announcing today, everyone should see as building on the steps we’ve taken over the last couple of months. Over the last couple of months, we’ve quadrupled our testing capacity. I’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s not related to your question; that would have been very impressive.
Q I know. It would have been amazing. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: But it — we’ve quadrupled over the last few months our testing capacity.
As some have asked, so let me clarify too: The 50 million tests that we are distributing this month to community health centers and rural health centers, this is in addition to that — those 50 million tests that are being distributed. The 20,000 sites that are already up and running, this is in addition to that, that the President is announcing today.
So, I reference that, Colleen, because it’s important for the American people to hear and understand: We’re going to continue to build.
So, the 500 million test kits that will begin to be available in January is a significant — the largest purchase we have done to date, and it is building on what we’ve done to date in an effort to make testing more free — free, accessible to people across the country.
Q Can I drill down on some specifics on this 500 — half a billion, if you will?
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q We like that big number on TV.
MS. PSAKI: Half a billion. Okay.
Q So when can Americans expect to see these tests? Where are they coming from? How many can a family or a person order at once? Is this website going to be able to sustain all of these people who will want to get on and get these tests?
MS. PSAKI: To answer your last question: Yes, that is our expectation and we are preparing for that. We are — we will have more information as it is available, including what the website looks like.
We will make the website available as soon as these tests are available. They will start to be available in January.
And in terms of the numbers that different families can order: That is — we are working through all those very important details right now.
Q So, Dr. Fauci said today that “it’s going to be a matter of a couple of weeks” when we start to see a decline from Omicron. Are these tests — this batch of 500 million — going to actually make a difference in the surge that we’re seeing right now or are they coming too late for this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, our objective here — the President’s objective has been to build on the steps he has taken over the last couple of months: again, quadrupling test — quadrupling testing capacity, making it more available in more communities, opening more testing sites across the country, and really directing our efforts and our resources toward the parts of the country where they need help the most.
So, I know part of the announcement today is obviously testing sites and opening additional testing sites. We have — additional testing sites have been running in New York City. We will have them up and running in New York City, for example, by the end of this week. Additional testing sites will come online next week, as states we are coordinating with, to determine logistics, scale, and timing can be finalized. And part of our effort now is also to make assessments about where additional testing sites will be needed.
So, we have teams out on the ground to make that assessment with governors, state leaders, local health officials who are experiencing spikes or who anticipate experiencing spikes.
And that’s just the testing center component where people can go and get them in person.
And again, this is building on the testing capacity we’ve already built to date and in January.
Q So you’re still seeing — sorry, last question. You’re still seeing these long lines all around the country. So, at the end of 2021, as we close out this year, I still have to ask: When can every American who wants to get an at-home test get one? Because they can’t get one today.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I just noted, one step we’re taking is really surging capacity and opening these testing sites in parts of the country where they have been hardest hit. New York City is one of them, and those testing sites will be up and running in New York City by the end of this week.
And we will continue to surge capacity and open additional testing sites in other parts of the country. And that is something that can happen very rapidly, and our team is ready to deploy those resources.
There are still 20,000 sites across the country where people can go. There are still 50 million tests that we are distributing to rural community health centers. And we’re doing this as quickly as possible.
Five hundred million tests in January is the largest order we have ever made to date, and we’re going to do it as quickly as we can, but they won’t be available until January.
Q And where are they coming from — these 500 million tests?
MS. PSAKI: The eight approved by the FDA — the eight tests approved by the FDA.
Q So there’s no holdup in getting those? There’s — it’ll — I mean, it’s going to be pretty easy?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’ll — they — those final approvals just went through in November, so that has been part of our ability to expand our capacity, in addition to using the Defense Production Act and our investment in $3 billion to do that.
Q Now, is it possible to reduce the 10-day isolation period? Is that something that’s under active consideration?
MS. PSAKI: I know that Dr. Fauci spoke to that briefly. That would be a decision made by our health and medical experts and in the CDC. So, I would certainly point you to them. We’re always assessing and looking at different steps that can be taken.
Go ahead, Jeff.
Q Is the President satisfied at the speed at which all of this is happening? It was nearly four weeks ago, over Thanksgiving vacation in Nantucket, when he first talked about the Omicron variant. We’ve known Christmas, obviously, is coming for a long time, and yet these sites will not be setup until the end of this week, which is Christmas. Is he satisfied at the speed in which this is all happening?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what the President has promised to the American people is, Jeff, is to constantly reexamine and improve our COVID response — including testing and testing access — and always look for a way to do better. And the announcement today is an effort to do exactly that.
We have taken a number of steps over the past several months. And his view is: We need to do more, and we need to do it more as ambitiously and aggressively as possible. And his announcement today is a reflection of that and should be seen as his own assessment that we should be doing more.
Q As you know, a couple weeks ago, you stood here at the podium when there was a discussion about sending the tests to people’s homes and you said, “Should we just send
them [one] to every American?” As you’ve reflected on the change in Omicron here, have you reflected on your tone in that answer?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Jeff, I would say there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t leave this podium and wish I would have said something with greater context or more precision or additional information.
And that day, there was a lot of good questioning on testing. And during that briefing, I conveyed a lot of information about our expansion of testing, about the 50 million tests that we were making available, about the 20,000 free testing sites. And should I have included that additional context again in that answer? Yes. Going back, I wish I would have done that.
To be clear so people have accurate information about how it works out there, which I know is your objective as well as mine: We’re making tests free and accessible without the risk of them going to waste in the home of people who do not want them.
So, people will go to a website — which, again, we will put out there in January when the information is available — and they will be able to request free tests. That’s something that is a reflection of the President’s commitment to continue re-examining and improving our COVID response, including as it relates to testing.
Go ahead, Ed.
Q And on testing, because why not? There’s more to ask here. And I realize you may not have answers yet, but is there any sense of whether you’ll be able to guarantee that from the moment ordered online, how long one will have to wait to receive them?
And are you going to be relying on FedEx, UPS, Amazon, or the Postal Service to help distribute these?
MS. PSAKI: Again, really good questions. And we, of course, want people to be able to rapidly receive the tests and people have certainty to know they can get a test, they can feel safe, go into their workplace, seeing their family members, sending their kids to school. That’s our objective. The details of how it will be distributed and the mechanisms will all be coming soon.
Q And has there been any active discussion, you know, between the White House and Congress about a possible supplemental now to deal with Omicron? I realize mayors and governors are flush with cash thanks to all the legislation passed this year. But is there any discussion yet about possibly another supplemental?
MS. PSAKI: There’s always, as you know from covering Congress, an open line of communication with members and leadership about what may be needed, and we’re always having that conversation.
But right now, we believe we have the resources to get people vaccinated, to make those available. And part of what you’ll hear the President convey today is how important it is for individuals to make the choice to take that step to protect themselves.
Q And then one quick, unrelated. We’re nearing the end of the year, and in the spirit of the holidays, presidents often will announce pardons and/or commutations. Should we be anticipating anybody in 2022 — or 2021? Sorry.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to preview at this time. I would just reiterate that the President has every intention of using his clemency power. And there has been some reporting, which is accurate, out there about nonviolent — looking at nonviolent drug offenders, but I don’t have anything to update you on at this point in time.
Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q Thanks, Jen. These 500 million tests are not getting to people in time for the holidays. And I know that you said you wish you’d rephrased your December 6th answer, but it seemed to discount at the time, which was only two weeks ago, the idea of sending tests to Americans at home. So what made you guys shift gears? When did that happen? And is any sort of lack of urgency in doing that sooner costing us now?
MS. PSAKI: I think it’s important, Jacqui — and I appreciate you asking the question — for people at home to understand that this has all been a building process, and that includes the approval of tests. There are now eight available as of November. That’s important because we needed enough tests to be able to tap into, to get the supply.
It includes quadrupling — not including the President’s speech today — our testing capacity over the course of the last couple of months. It includes the 50 million tests that we made available to rural community health centers and community health centers — all components that I talked about exactly on that day in the briefing. If anything, it was a lesson to me to always include the context and make sure you use every opportunity of questions you all ask to do exactly that.
But today, what the President is announcing — and this is, again, to Jeff’s question and to yours as well — to be clear: We’re not sending a test to every single home in the country. We are providing an opportunity — another opportunity or ability for people to — an important one — go on a website and request a test if their preference is to get that test to their home. Not everybody will do that, but we want people who want to do that — who want to get tested, who want to request tests that way — to have that ability to do.
Q And then, obviously, this, you know, new push for testing is a big component of the strategy to combat this this winter. But is there any concern that there hasn’t been enough focus also on therapeutics, given that you have vaccines in other parts of the world that don’t offer any protection against Omicron? We’re lucky in the U.S. that Pfizer and Moderna do, but this is a virus that’s spreading in all parts of the world. We saw it pop, appear, and then, just in three weeks, it’s the dominant strain.
MS. PSAKI: You’re absolutely right, Jacqui, that the vaccine — not the vaccine, I’m sorry — the virus does not see borders. And obviously, fighting the virus, getting the virus under control is going to require getting it under control globally.
Part of what our objective is and effort from the U.S. government is to continue to be the global supplier of vaccine doses and also a range of materials needed to produce vaccines, to treat people who are sick. That certainly is a part of our objective.
Q But would there be a greater push to produce therapeutics — you know, something like the pill that’s supposed to come out — and get that out with as much urgency as we’re having for the vaccine?
MS. PSAKI: We will, of course, be focused on that. But I think it’s important for people to know the best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated and get boosted. And that is the most effective step that any person living in United States or around the world can take. And that is what our priority is on.
Q Real quick, one last question. You had said back in — I think it was June — that we would hear pet news on a day when it was a tough news day. And yesterday —
MS. PSAKI: It was a light joke. (Laughter.)
Q But yesterday, we heard about Major being rehomed, a new puppy, and a White House cat. So is this like the worst week ever for the White House? (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Believe it or not, Jacqui, I don’t have time in my schedule to coordinate with the pet folks, but the pet was a preseden- — a present from the President’s brother. I met the pet this morning — the pet — “Commander.” We can call him by his name. And he’s very adorable. He’s going to bring joy to the President, the First Family, to all of us, probably, as well.
And as I think was noted by the First Lady’s team, we can expect to meet the cat — a “she,” as I’ve learned — in January.
Q Hey, Jen. Here in the District — and we’re seeing similar numbers in a number of other jurisdictions — we’re seeing all-time highs, in terms of cases not just this year, but for the entirety of the pandemic.
A number of these are also breakthrough cases. You used to hear the administration talk about how rare these were, but there seems to have been a change in tone around these.
Is it almost inevitable now — is that the view of the administration — that many Americans, including vaccinated Americans, will see a case — a positive case — in the next few weeks.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m going to let our medical doctors give an assessment of that. We do expect, though — and I would echo what they have said — that — there to be increases of cases and increases of breakthrough cases.
We are still seeing a significant amount of protection from even getting the virus from the vaccines, from being boosted. But there are — will be breakthrough cases. We have — we have breakthrough cases in the White House. I’m sure you will have them in your news organizations. And we’re seeing numbers go up in New York City, in D.C., and other parts of the country.
What we will continue to convey — because we recognize that a lot of people are sitting at home, many of whom are vaccinated and are scared. And we want to convey accurate information to them about the effectiveness of the vaccines.
And this is a very interesting chart — which is why I love charts, but this an interesting one — that fully vaccinated — this is looking at average weekly deaths. If you look at the number of fully vaccinated versus unvaccinated, we’ve seen it have peaks and valleys, but it’s 14 times higher for unvaccinated individuals — 14 times more likely to die of COVID than if you were vaccinated.
I would — you know, no one wants to get COVID, but I think what the President is conveying is: Get vaccinated. I mean, you may have some light symptoms. You may have most — no symptoms. That is far preferable to being hospitalized or even worse.
Q Can you speak to some of the protocols that are in place here at the White House?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Because I think a lot of Americans have questions about if they were to test positive or are in close contact, what are the protocols that they should follow.
What are they in place here at the White House, especially as it relates to this individual who tested positive who the President was in proximity to?
MS. PSAKI: What — what is their protocol or what is the President’s protocol?
Q What is the protocol for other White House staff — others who were interacting with this individual?
MS. PSAKI: Well — well, if somebody is a close contact — so, the guidance of the CDC is: If you’re a close contact, you should be tested five to seven days — five days and seven days post contact. We do three and five days post contact here at the White House through PCR tests.
The President has had his three-day PCR test yesterday. He will have his five-day — five-day PCR test tomorrow.
I would also note that as it relates to our own protocols here — because we, of course, go over and above in a lot of ways here — every time you’re going to travel with the President or even meet in the Oval Office with the President, you’re required to be tested that day. So there are additional pro- — there are also regular testing protocols for others who may not be interacting with the President, and we also wear masks around the building as well.
Q And I have a question on Build Back Better, as the White House tries to look at a path forward here. On the Child Tax Credit, it seems inevitable at this point — unlikely, at least — that millions of Americans who benefited from that Child Tax Credit, from that monthly payment, will not get that in the month of January. What is the White House’s message to them?
And Senator Romney has put forward a proposal that he says would be a bipartisan pathway forward. Is that something the White House is looking into?
MS. PSAKI: Well, most importantly, the President’s message is that his preference was to get Build Back Better passed in December so that people could have the Child Tax Credit extended — a benefit that has contributed to cutting child poverty in half this year and has helped put money in people’s pockets and food on the table and make sure many, many families could help make ends meet during an economic downturn that was tied to the pandemic.
And I would say, on the second piece of your question, we are going to work with anybody who’s interested in taking steps to lower costs for the American people, whether it’s on childcare or eldercare or healthcare. We want to get Build Back Better done because the comprehensive package is going to have an enormous impact, according to dozens of economists across the board. It would require 60 votes in order to get individual pieces passed.
Okay, I’m sorry, because I don’t want you to miss the speech. I’ll try to go to, like, two more here.
Q Thanks, Jen. Will certain groups be prioritized on the testing website? Or is it just first come, first served?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a really great question. We obviously want to do this in an equitable way; that is how we have approached every element of our COVID policy. But that is part of what is being discussed and determined now.
Q And what are the procedures that would go into place if the President did, in fact, test positive for COVID?
MS. PSAKI: He would follow CDC guidelines.
Q Would he stay at the White House? Would he go to Walter Reed? Or is that still undecided?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any predictions of that. I think it depends on whether he would be symptomatic or not. But let’s hope that’s not a challenge we will be facing.
Q Can you just quickly say whether the staffer that tested positive tested positive for the Omicron variant?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any additional information.
Go ahead. Last one, and then people can come see me in my office after the speech.
Q There’s a report that you’re considering extending the student loan relief past the February deadline. Can you comment on that — whether that’s on the table or a decision that’s been made?
MS. PSAKI: The President has not made a decision yet.
Q Okay. And can you briefly — you said he’s asymptomatic. That is sometimes a phrase used for people who tested positive but don’t have symptoms. Do you just mean he’s not symptomatic but hasn’t tested (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: He does not have symptoms. Yes, correct.
Q All right. Okay.
Q Can you clarify: He has not tested positive, though? Because this is causing confusion out there.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, he — apologies, he has not tested positive. He tested negative yesterday, as we indicated. And he will be tested against tomorrow. He is not — does not have any symptoms either.
Q And we’re reporting that the FDA will authorize both the Merck and Pfizer pills. I would obviously welcome your confirmation of that, if you could give it. But more realistically, can you say what role having those pills will play in the overall response? How does it change your view of tackling this with the pills at hand if they are, in fact, available?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I’ll just preface that I’m not going to, of course, get ahead of the FDA or the process — the “gold standard,” as we like to say. But certainly, having antivirals available is another component that will help us fight the virus, address the pandemic, help people return to a version of normal. And we will be prepared, like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to ensure we are making these antivirals available to the public.
All right, thanks, everyone.
2:35 P.M. EST