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Dr. Anthony Fauci on omicron surge: 'We cannot take this lightly at all'

The leader of the White House coronavirus response said the return of mask mandates and other restrictions are "not an overreaction" to the latest COVID-19 surge.

As professional sports leagues postpone games and cities reinstate mask mandates amid the surge of the omicron COVID-19 variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday the response was "by no means an overreaction" to the rise in cases and hospitalizations across the country.

Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, spoke to Craig Melvin on TODAY Tuesday about how people should approach their holiday plans and whether the return of many COVID-19 restrictions is warranted.

"Oh, it’s by no means not an overreaction," Fauci said. "You’re dealing with a virus that has an unprecedented capability of spreading extremely rapidly. We’ve really not seen anything like this before. It has a doubling time of about two days. 

"It very well may be less severe, we’re hoping that’s the case, and we’re hoping as this evolves here in the United States, that that will be our experience. But even if it is, the quantity of infections given the extraordinary efficiency of spread, might actually obviate that diminution in severity to the point where you still get a lot of significant disease, so we cannot take this lightly at all."

Omicron has rapidly overtaken delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the country, with 73% of new cases being caused by omicron, up from 13% last week, according to data released on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eight states set hospitalization records on Sunday, according to an NBC News analysis of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. The first death from the omicron variant has occurred in Texas — a man in his fifties with underlying conditions who was not vaccinated.

The latest surge has people wondering how to approach their holiday plans with Christmas coming up on Saturday. Fauci encouraged getting tested before a gathering if that is an option to help alleviate any concern.

"If you don’t have the availability of the test and you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you should feel comfortable having a holiday meal or gathering with family members who are also vaccinated and boosted," he said.

Getting vaccinated and boosted also protects young children who are not currently eligible for vaccination.

"The best way to protect children who are not yet at the age that they can be vaccinated is to surround them with people who are vaccinated," he said. "You protect yourself and you protect your unvaccinated children by making sure they are in an environment with vaccinated people."

Fauci also outlined the protections President Joe Biden is taking to stay safe during the surge.

Biden, 79, who has been vaccinated and boosted, is in a higher-risk group because of his age. He tested negative on Monday.

"The president is very careful," Fauci said. "I'm with him virtually at least once a week if not more, and we are very careful around him. Everyone gets tested before they can even come into the room with him, and he wears a mask and we wear a mask when we're with him, so the president is very prudent and takes good care about trying to protect himself for obvious reasons."

The White House is preparing to ship 500 million free at-home Covid tests for anyone who wants one starting next month, and 1,000 military members are being dispatched to help understaffed hospitals across the nation.

The government is also expanding on the 20,000 existing U.S. testing sites.

The latest surge has caused Washington, D.C., to reinstate an indoor mask mandate and many Boston businesses to require proof of vaccination for indoor settings starting next month.

Professional sports leagues like the NBA, NFL and NHL are grappling with a wave of postponements due to Covid cases. The NHL has paused its season until after Christmas, calling off five games scheduled for Thursday.

The biggest threat remains to those who are unvaccinated, who are nine times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from Covid-related complications, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing last month.

"One of the ways we can get (the pandemic) stopped is to get a lot more people vaccinated," Fauci said. "It's very unfortunate that we still have about 50 million people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not yet vaccinated. It will stop when we get the overwhelming majority of people vaccinated and boosted.

The people who don't vaccinated, ultimately this virus is going to find them. They will get infected and many of them will suffer and get hospitalized and some will die."