Fact Check

Did White House Say Unvaccinated Are Looking at 'Winter of Severe Illness and Death'?

White House COVID-⁠19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients had a harsh warning for Americans who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Published Dec. 21, 2021

 (White House / Flickr)
Image courtesy of White House / Flickr
An official in the Biden White House said in December 2021 that the unvaccinated are looking at a "winter of severe illness and death."

This is a genuine public statement from Jeffrey Zients, counselor to U.S. President Joe Biden and the White House's COVID-⁠19 response coordinator, at the beginning of a White House press briefing. However, contrary to how it has been presented by some, it was part of a longer statement emphasizing the importance of wearing masks and getting vaccinated, not a standalone warning.

On Dec. 17, 2021, a screenshot supposedly showing a White House statement that warned of a "winter of severe illness and death" was widely circulated on social media:

This is a genuine excerpt from a statement released by a White House.

Some social media users appeared to have been under the impression that this was a standalone statement (i.e., that the White House had released these two paragraphs praising the vaccinated and chastising the unvaccinated without context or explanation), but that wasn't the case. This is an excerpt from a much longer press briefing.

The above-displayed statement was spoken by Jeffrey Zients, counselor to the president of the United States, as he introduced a team of doctors and public health officials at the beginning of a press briefing by the White House COVID-⁠19 Response Team. Zients' comments are reproduced in full below (see also the official White House transcript). The text from the viral screenshot is highlighted below:

Good morning. And thanks for joining us.

Today, Dr. Walensky will give an overview of the state of the pandemic and on new practices that will help keep schools open, and Dr. Fauci will provide an update on the latest science and the importance of boosters.

But before we start, I want to talk about how we should think about this moment.

As we’ve explained in prior briefings, the Omicron variant is more transmissible and our medical experts anticipate it will lead to a rise in cases.

But unlike last winter, we now have the power to protect ourselves.

Our vaccines work against Omicron, especially for people who get booster shots when they are eligible. If you are vaccinated, you could test positive. But if you do get COVID, your case will likely be asymptomatic or mild.

We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this.

For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.

So, our message to every American is clear: There is action you can take to protect yourself and your family. Wear a mask in public indoor settings. Get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, and get a booster shot when you’re eligible.

We are prepared to confront this new challenge. We have plenty of vaccines and booster shots available at convenient locations and for no cost. There is clear guidance on masking to help slow the spread. And we have emergency medical teams to respond to surges as necessary.

So, this is not a moment to panic because we know how to protect people and we have the tools to do it. But we need the American people to do their part to protect themselves, their children, and their communities.

The more people get vaccinated, the less severe this Omicron outbreak will be. One hundred sixty thousand unvaccinated people have already needlessly lost their lives just since June, and this number will continue to go up until the unvaccinated take action.

So, I’ll say it once more: Get vaccinated.

With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Walensky.

Zients' comments can be viewed below. The viral passage can be heard around the 4:30 mark:


Haslett, Cheyenne. “Unvaccinated Should Expect Winter of ‘illness and Death’ Ahead of Projected COVID Surge: White House.” ABC7 Los Angeles, 18 Dec. 2021, https://abc7.com/unvaccinated-people-covid-deaths-vaccine-omicron/11355841/.

“Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials.” The White House, 17 Dec. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/12/17/press-briefing-by-white-house-covid-19-response-team-and-public-health-officials-74/.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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