Why is Biden Under Fire Now?

Published November 28th, 2021 - 09:08 GMT
Biden caught shopping indoors without a face mask despite African travel ban
US President Joe Biden (2R) walks down the street to St. Mary, Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church, with Hunter Biden (L) , granddaughter Natalie (2R) and Peter Neal in Nantucket, Massachusetts on November 27, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
Biden was seen with his mask around his neck and not covering his mouth

US President Joe Biden was caught disobeying an indoor face mask mandate during weekend while being in Nantucket just hours after being 'fully briefed' on the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and banning travel from eight African countries. 

The president, who has been staying on the island with his family this Thanksgiving weekend, was spotted inside Murray's Toggery Shop with his mask around his neck and not covering his mouth. A large 'Face Covering Required' sign could be seen on the front door of the shop.

The island brought back its indoor mask mandates earlier this month at a town meeting on November 18. They made the decision to return to indoor masking because scientists found a prevalence of the virus in island sewage.

Nantucket has a fairly low number of cases and one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but the sewage showing a prevalence of the virus immediately triggered the return of indoor mask mandates for at least two weeks.  

Biden, who is vaccinated, has repeatedly told Americans to wear masks indoors.

The president spent much of his Saturday shopping in Nantucket, joined by his son Hunter and three of his grandchildren, including Hunter's infant son Beau, named for the president's late eldest son. 

President Biden and one of his granddaughters, Finnegan, were later greeted by Father John Murray for mass at St. Mary Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church. 

The White House said that Biden has been 'fully briefed' on Omicron as fears rise over the new super mutant variant - and the president's top health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he 'wouldn't be surprised' if the strain was already in the U.S.  

The Dutch health ministry said Saturday that at least 61 new cases of Covid entered the Netherlands from South Africa, leading Dr Anthony Fauci to sound the alarm about the dangers Omicron poses to Covid-weary US residents.

When asked if he thinks Omicron is already in the US while on the Today Show Saturday morning, Fauci replied: 'I would not be surprised if it is. 

'We have not detected it yet but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases...it almost invariably is ultimately going to go all over.'  

'You have to be careful and assume that that's the case,' he added, noting that Omicron could possibly 'evade' vaccinations. 

He also showed concerns about 'transmissibility' as Biden says US citizens and green card holders from other regions of Africa will still be allowed to travel to the US. 

Israel on Saturday said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israel, the first country to shut its borders completely over the Omicron variant, has so far confirmed one case of the variant and seven other suspected cases.

On Friday, Biden announced a ban on travel from eight southern African countries in response to Omicron - hours after his chief scientific advisor suggested the move was unlikely, and despite Biden himself declaring last year that 'banning travel will not stop it'. 

The State Department has initially issued a Stage 4 'Do Not Travel' warning on all eight of those countries. 

Fauci said on his Today Show segment this morning that 'blocking travel from a given country is to just give us time to assess it better'. He made the comment only a few hours before Biden announced his decision the chief scientist said he thought a ban was unlikely.

He also noted that the travel bans are 'not any reason to panic' but added: 'It has a large number of mutations, particularly in that area of the virus that relates to its ability to bind to the cells in your nasal pharynx and in your lung.'  

The president implemented the bans while spending Thanksgiving in Nantucket for a break with his family. 

He made the decision to halt flights from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi as of Monday after a 30-minute conversation with Fauci and his team.

He told reporters that US citizens and green card holders will still be able to travel into the country from the banned regions but no one else will be allowed. 

The decision came after the UK and Israel halted travel on Thursday and the EU followed suit.

The following day New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020. 

Hochul insisted that the troubling new variant of Covid that first emerged in Botswana is 'coming'. 

Her warning came as a leading epidemiologist told DailyMail.com the new strain was deeply troubling, urging tougher travel restrictions and saying the virus could spark 'pandemic 2.0'.

Fauci told the Today Show that there are still a lot of unknowns and a question he is trying to answer is if an infection by the Omicron variant is more serious than an infection by the Delta variant.

'Are the antibodies that are induced by the vaccines that we are using - do they protect against this?' he also noted he was wondering. 

Speaking to CNN yesterday, Fauci said that he was 'in very active communication with South African colleagues'. 

South African experts yesterday also attempted to calm the wave of panic over the variant, describing it as a 'storm in a tea cup'. 

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has implemented new Covid restrictions in response to the 'monstrous' new Omicron variant after placing seven countries in southern Africa on a red list - from which all travelers must go into hotel quarantine.

All passengers arriving to the UK must take a PCR test on day two after landing and isolate at home until they get the result and all contacts of someone infected with Omicron variant must isolate for 10 days.

Flanked by Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a press conference on Saturday, the Prime Minister also announced that the rules on face masks in public spaces will be tightened. 

In an address to the nation, Mr Johnson warned that Omicron 'diverges quite significantly from other configurations of the virus' and warned it will 'reduce the protections of our vaccines over time'.

Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will also be added to the no-fly list on Sunday. All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned yesterday amid growing international panic about the 'variant of concern,' which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.

Earlier today, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that two cases of the strain were detected in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex and confirmed that both were linked to travel to southern Africa.

The infected individuals and all members of their households have been told to self-isolate after the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the sequencing.

Meanwhile near Amsterdam, around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport from Johannesburg - the epicenter for the new strain that experts fear is 40 percent more vaccine evasive than Delta - hours after travel bans were put in place. 

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.

Europe's first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium on Friday - despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt, not South Africa where the strain emerged.   

Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany's initial sequencing suggested a traveler from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today.

And Australian authorities - who also banned travel to nine countries in the region - fear the variant may have already entered the country. 

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday - more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday. But infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalizations with the new variant have occurred so far.

However, Botswana does have four confirmed Omicron cases and South Africa has 77 - with the real figure likely in the hundreds - and Hong Kong has two, meaning 83 cases of the variant are confirmed so far. 

It has also been found in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, and is worrying scientists because it appears to be able to easily reinfect those who have already been infected, or who have had the vaccine. 

Fauci concluded on the Today Show by saying that the new strain is another reason 'it is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters'.

As of Friday at 5am EST, the CDC website's travel advice page for South Africa had the country listed as 'Level 4: Very High Level of Covid-19,' with flights to the US permitted from the African country since November 8. 

The levels range from Level unknown, Level 1: Low, Level 2: Moderate, Level 3: High and Level 4: Very High.

The CDC had the country listed as Level 1 on Monday. 

The page also asks anyone traveling to and from South Africa to be fully vaccinated, or for those who are not to be tested for Covid. It also recommends travelers follow measures that are in-place in South Africa, including wearing a mask and social distancing.

The US Embassy issued a Covid-19 update on their website Saturday and alerted that the US Department of State announced that travel to South Africa had also advanced to 'Level 4 - Do Not Travel - due to the newly identified Covid-19 Omicron variant'. 

The statement added: 'US citizens and Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) who are eligible to travel but are not fully vaccinated will need to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test one (1) day before their flight. US citizens and LPRs who are fully vaccinated will need to present airlines with proof of vaccination and of a negative Covid-19 test three (3) days before their flight.'

South Africa's infection rate spiked 93 percent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country's nine provinces, but there is yet to be a surge in hospitalizations in the virus epicenter Johannesburg.

Travelers from South Africa have been allowed entry into the US since November 8, when restrictions barring entry to people from more than 30 countries - implemented at the start of the pandemic - were partially lifted.

Newer rules, which came 19 months after the travel ban was implemented, require international visitors to show both proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test. 

Earlier in October, Joe and Jill Biden dined out in Washington DC on Saturday night for the first time since moving to the White House - and promptly broke the city's mask mandate.

The president and first lady were seen at Fiola Mare, a seafood restaurant popular with the political set in the Georgetown area of the city.

'Per CDC guidance and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser's executive order, all individuals over age 2 are required to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status,' the restaurant states on its website.

Yet the 78-year-old and his wife were both maskless as they walked through the restaurant, with their Secret Service detail wearing black face masks.

The president was carrying his face mask but not wearing it, despite vocally-pushing for people to wear them as often as possible.

President Biden has also frequently donned his own mask, despite being fully-vaccinated, in what some critics have branded political theater.

He has said he is determined to differentiate himself from Donald Trump, famed for turning his nose up at the coverings, and not being snapped wearing one until July 2020 - five months after cases began to hit US shores.

In August the Mayor of DC Muriel Bowser reinstated a mask mandate, and ordered that restaurants, bars, and other liquor-serving establishments will face fines for not enforcing the rules.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted Monday that President Biden did not put his mask back on 'as quickly as he should' while on date night with First Lady Jill over the weekend, but told reporters not to focus on that moment. 

'Of course there are moments when we all don't put masks back on as quickly as we should,' the press secretary said in response to questioning over the moment. 

'But I don't think we should lose a forest through the trees here,' Psaki said. 

She added that people should focus on Biden's goal to get more Americans vaccinated and make sure schools and companies can implement their own mask and vaccine requirements, 'not overly focus on moments in time that don't reflect overarching policy.'

Earlier Saturday, the president and first lady Jill Biden were joined for lunch by Hunter, Hunter's wife Melissa, daughters Ashley and Naomi, granddaughters Finnegan, Maisy and Natalie, grandson Hunter, and Hunter and Melissa's new baby Beau Biden, as well as Peter Neal, Naomi's fiancé. 

Biden has been slammed for still allowing flights from South Africa to land in the U.S. as tension builds amid the new variant, but senior health officials and the Covid response team, including Fauci, have reportedly been monitoring the latest updates on Omicron and are in regular touch with health officials around the world.

Vice President Kamala Harris called the travel ban 'necessary' during an appearance in downtown Washington Saturday, as part of the annual Small Business Saturday that takes place every year after Black Friday.

When asked about any further travel restrictions, Harris paused and said: 'We'll take it one step at a time, but as of now, we've done what we believe is necessary.

'I have been briefed,' Harris added. 'As the president has said, we're gonna take every precaution and that's why we've taken the measures we have.' 

Meanwhile, a South African doctor is offering some early information about the symptoms sufferers of the Omicron variant have, calling them 'mild but unsual.' 

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a board member of the South African Medical Association, first saw otherwise healthy patients demonstrating these symptoms beginning November 18 and flagged it as a possible variant. 

'It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well,' Coetzee said. 'So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer the loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home.' 

Coetzee said around two dozen of her patients that tested positive for the coronavirus displayed these new symptoms.

Most of those displaying symptoms were men said they were 'feeling so tired,' and half of them were unvaccinated. The patients comprised a range of ages and ethnicities. 

At the same time, a flight from Johannesburg landed at Newark airport Saturday morning - one of the last before Biden's travel ban goes into effect on Monday.

According to Flight Aware, there are two more direct flights Saturday from South Africa slated to land in the US - one flight will arrive at Newark, New Jersey, and the other will arrive in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Eight flights are also scheduled to depart South Africa for New York on Sunday before travelers from eight African countries - South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi - are not allowed into the country.   

Meanwhile, one-in-ten passengers who landed in Holland from Johannesburg tested positive for Covid, although it was unclear which were infected with the Omicron strain. 

Earlier today United Airlines flight 187 arrived stateside from Johannesburg but it is still unclear if any passengers tested positive for Covid.

The CDC has yet to identify any cases of the new Covid strain in the US but the UK has said two people have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant.   

'In South Africa - even though the numbers are relatively small - its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection, and even people who have been vaccinated, make us say: 'This is something you gotta pay really close attention to. And be prepared for something that's serious,'' Fauci said. 

'It may not turn out that way but you really want to be ahead of it, and that's the reason why we're doing what we're doing.' 

Biden has said the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place.


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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