WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday stepped up his administration’s response to a coronavirus surge caused by the Omicron variant, sending what he said was urgent aid to overwhelmed hospitals and pledging to provide Americans with tests and free masks as the country enters the third year of the pandemic.
Mr Biden said he was directing his staff to purchase an additional 500 million tests for distribution to Americans, doubling the government’s previous purchase as his administration scrambles to respond to the highly contagious Omicron.
Additionally, the president said he is sending a total of 120 military medical personnel to six states where hospitals have been overwhelmed with cases. And he promised to reveal plans next week to help Americans by providing free, high-quality face masks that are more effective at preventing infection with the virus.
The announcement of further testing came as Mr Biden prepared to get an update from the leaders of his Covid response team at the White House on Thursday morning.
“We will continue to work with retailers and e-tailers to increase availability,” he said.
But it’s unclear when the tests will be available. Mr Biden announced the first batch of 500 million tests just before Christmas, and the first batch of that announcement won’t start shipping until later this month, according to White House officials. Details on how Americans can request these tests, including a government-run testing website, are expected to be released on Friday.
The president did not specify when the new batch of 500 million tests will be manufactured and ready for distribution. But he said home testing – along with more than 20,000 testing sites across the country – will help meet growing demand as people try to keep working, attending school and living. in society despite the rapid spread of the virus.
“We are on track to roll out a website next week where you can order free tests shipped to your home,” he said, adding that people with medical insurance may also soon be getting medical insurance. reimburse the purchase of eight tests per month.
Mr. Biden did not provide any details on what he said was a plan to ensure Americans have access to high-quality masks. Experts said KN95 and N95 masks protect against Omicron better than the more common cloth or surgical masks that many people wear.
The hospital aid announcement marked the start of a deployment of 1,000 service members to help doctors and nurses deal with a surge in Omicron cases, Biden said.
About this data
Sources: National and local health agencies (cases, deaths); US Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
The president appeared alongside Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, and Deanne Criswell, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at the White House to detail the teams heading to hard-hit communities affected across the country. Mr Biden said late last month he would call in the military to help hospitals in early January.
The new teams of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel would begin arriving at hospitals in Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island, the president said. , to help triage patients arriving at hospitals, allowing short-staffed emergency departments to free up space.
Each of those states has seen an astronomical increase in known cases, already surpassing the previous national peak per capita reached last winter, according to a New York Times database. As of Wednesday, Rhode Island was nearly 700% of last winter’s peak, while per capita cases in New York and New Jersey were between four and five times higher than last year’s national peak.
Per capita hospitalizations in five of the six states have already exceeded last winter’s peak; New Mexico is the exception, at 73% of this peak. And with deaths, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio have climbed higher than the peak in recent days, while New Jersey and New York are approaching that level.
The deployments are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to deal with the latest wave of Omicron cases, which have reached more than 780,000 a day across the country. The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has reached a record high of around 142,000.
While research has found that Omicron causes less severe disease and vaccines remain protective against the worst outcomes for the vast majority of people, many public health experts have urged less focus on case rates and more put more emphasis on hospitalizations amid record national spikes. Still, experts fear the large number of cases will strain health systems already strained by previous surges and grappling with staff shortages. Even though at least some hospitalized people accidentally test positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions other than Covid-19, experts say accidental infections can still pose significant health risks.
For Mr Biden, the inability to bring the pandemic under control has helped lower his approval ratings as he enters his second year in office. Its staff intend to publicly communicate their efforts to fight the virus.
Since Thanksgiving, when Omicron was first discovered in South Africa, the administration has sent more than 800 military personnel and relief workers to 24 states, tribes and territories, officials said, not including personnel announced Thursday by Mr. Biden.
In addition, more than 14,000 members of the National Guard have been activated in 49 states to help hospitals with vaccinations, tests and other medical services, officials said. These deployments were funded by the American Rescue Plan, a law Mr. Biden defended early in his tenure.
Officials said there would likely be further deployments of military medical personnel in the coming days as the country continues to fight the pandemic.
Adel Hassan contributed report.