Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Jan. 11, 2022.
Shawn Thew—EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images
January 11, 2022 3:58 PM EST

The Biden administration came under fire for its pandemic response and communications as the omicron variant continues to drive U.S. Covid-19 cases.

Conflicting guidance on issues such as boosters and testing have left the public confused about how best to protect themselves, Republican Senator Richard Burr, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a hearing Tuesday.

The administration’s booster rollout and the recent update to the quarantine and isolation guidance were a “mess” and a “disaster,” Burr said in the hearing. “I’m not questioning the science,” he said, “but I’m questioning your communication strategies. It’s no wonder the American people are confused.”

The U.S. and countries worldwide have been hit by surges since the emergence of omicron in South Africa late last year. The quickly spreading mutant was classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern in November and has swept through the U.S. since it was detected in California on Dec. 1.

Read more: What We Know About Omicron Symptoms So Far

Omicron accounted for 98% of all sequenced Covid cases in the U.S. in the week ending Jan. 8, up from 95% in the previous week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday in remarks prepared for the hearing. The surge risks putting additional strain on health-care systems as flu season intensifies, she told Senate lawmakers.

Although data suggest that omicron infections are less severe than those from other variants such as delta, the transmissibility and high number of infections with the new variant still threaten hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices with added strain, Walensky said. Other seasonal infections alongside omicron may create an even more dire situation, she said.

“These stresses likely will be in addition to the ongoing delta variant infections and a rising burden of illness caused by other respiratory pathogens, such as influenza, which have begun circulating at greater frequencies,” she said in her remarks.

Health officials have been working to monitor the spread of the variant, which is able to partially evade the effect of Covid shots. Booster shots restore the protection given by initial vaccination regimens, studies show.

Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s medical adviser and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell are also giving testimony.

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