The rapid spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 that has resulted in long lines at many testing sites and at-home tests quickly selling out around the country has raised the question of why the nation's testing capacity has been caught flat-footed by the latest surge.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked by Craig Melvin on TODAY Wednesday why the country wasn't more prepared to have adequate testing as cases dramatically rise.
"This has come on quickly," Walensky said. "We've learned about omicron just prior to Thanksgiving, around the end of November. The doubling time of this virus has been really rapid. The administration is doing a lot with regard to testing, and we recognize we have more work to do."
Walensky noted that the federal government announced Tuesday that it is prepared to ship as many as 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits next month to anyone who wants one and is also looking to expand on the 20,000 existing sites where people can get a free PCR test for COVID-19.
The long lines for tests, disruption to professional sports leagues and worries over holiday gatherings due to the latest spike in cases have brought back memories of last year's holidays during the pandemic, but Walensky said there is one clear difference.
"I do want to remind people that we are in a very different place than we were a year ago," she said. "We have vaccines. We have boosters. And we have all of the science that demonstrates that prevention interventions like masking in indoor settings work to mitigate the spread of this virus."
Walensky said "there is really no need to panic" as cases and hospitalizations spike in many areas nationwide. CDC data shows 73% of the new cases being reported in the country are from the omicron variant.
"We expected this because we have seen the doubling times of this virus in other countries have been really rapid and that's what we've seen here in the United States and that really was the motivation for the president and the administration's action right now," she said.
She stressed being vaccinated and boosted if eligible as keys to a safe holiday gathering with Christmas coming this weekend.
"But I want to remind folks that so much about the safety of your gathering has less to do with the plane ride or the train ride that you're going to do to get there and very much to do with the behaviors that you have in the week prior to your gathering," she said. "Have you been practicing those safe prevention strategies or have you been out in gatherings in public indoor settings without a mask on? Because that's really when your exposure would've happened."
The spread of omicron has reiterated the need to get vaccinated, as Walensky noted that people are 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 if they are unvaccinated.
"I do think that we will see that those who are vaccinated and boosted will have less severe outcomes, less risk of mortality," she said. "There are going to be breakthrough cases of omicron and they will be cases but they will be certainly milder if you’re vaccinated and boosted."