WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday ramped up his administration’s response to a coronavirus surge fueled by the Omicron variant, sending urgently-needed aid to overwhelmed hospitals and promising to provide Americans with free tests and masks when the country enters its third year of lockdown. into the pandemic.
Biden said he instructed his staff to purchase an additional 500 million coronavirus tests for distribution to Americans, doubling the government’s previous purchase as his administration works to respond to the highly contagious Omicron variant.
In addition, the president said he is sending a total of 120 military medical personnel to six states where hospitals have been overrun by cases. And he promised next week to unveil plans to help Americans by providing free, high-quality masks that can better prevent infection from the virus.
The announcement about additional testing came as Mr. Biden prepared to receive an update from the leaders of his Covid response team at the White House on Thursday morning.
“That means a total of one billion tests to meet future demand,” Mr Biden said. “And we will continue to work with retailers and online retailers to increase availability.”
But it’s unclear when the tests will be available. Biden announced the first batch of 500 million tests just before Christmas, and the first batch of that announcement won’t be delivered until later this month, according to White House officials. Details on how Americans can request those tests, including a government-run testing website, will be revealed on Friday.
The president did not say when the new batch of 500 million tests will be manufactured and ready for distribution. But he said the at-home tests — along with more than 20,000 testing sites across the country — will help meet rising demand as people try to work, school and social life despite the rapid spread of the virus.
“We are on track to roll out a website next week where you can order a free test that will be delivered to your home,” he said, adding that people with medical insurance will soon also be able to receive reimbursement for purchasing up to eight tests a month.
Mr Biden did not provide details of what he said would be a plan to ensure Americans have access to high-quality masks. Experts say KN95 and N95 masks protect against the Omicron variety better than the more common cloth or surgical masks many people wear.
“As I’ve been saying for the past two years, please wear a mask. I think it’s part of your patriotic duty,” he said, recognizing that “it’s not that comfortable, it’s a pain in your neck.”
The announcement about aid to hospitals marked the start of a 1,000 military deployment to help doctors and nurses deal with a spate of Omicron cases, Mr Biden said.
The president appeared at the White House alongside Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, and Deanne Criswell, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to describe the teams headed to hard-hit communities across the country. Mr Biden said late last month that 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 rooms to free up space.
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The deployments are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the latest wave of cases caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant. While it has risen, there are also new cases, with more than 780,000 a day across the country. The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has reached an all-time high of about 142,000.
For Mr Biden, the inability to bring the pandemic under control has contributed to his approval ratings plummeting as he enters his second year in office. His employees plan to communicate publicly about their efforts to tackle the virus.
Since Thanksgiving, when Omicron was first discovered in South Africa, the government has sent more than 800 military and emergency personnel to 24 states, tribes and territories, officials said, not counting the personnel Biden announced Thursday.
In addition, more than 14,000 National Guard members have been activated in 49 states to help hospitals with vaccinations, testing and other medical services, officials said. Those implementations have been paid for by the US bailout, a law that Biden championed at the start of his term in office.
“To the military medical teams on the ground, thank you for all you are doing,” the president said.
Officials said further military medical personnel are likely to be deployed in the coming days as the country continues to struggle with the pandemic.
Zachary Montague reporting contributed.