by Josh Bok and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
WASHINGTON (AP) — Fighting a surge in the Omicron version through the country, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that the government would provide 500 million free rapid tests, increase support for hospitals under pressure and renegotiate vaccinations. initiate and promote efforts.
In remarks Tuesday at the White House, Biden made major changes to his COVID-19 winter plan, his hands forced by the advent of the rapidly spreading version, whose properties are not yet fully understood by scientists. Yet his message was clear that winter holidays can be close to normal for vaccinated people while potentially dangerous for unvaccinated.
His arguments are not political, he insisted. He noted that former President Donald Trump has received his booster shot, and added that it is a “patriotic duty” of Americans to get vaccinated.
“It’s the only responsible thing to do,” the president said. “Omicron is a serious and potentially fatal business for unvaccinated people.”
Biden rebuked people on social media and cable TV for making misleading statements to discourage people from getting vaccinated.
The outbreak of this latest strain of the coronavirus requires the federal government to be more aggressive in addressing a potential wave of infections, but Biden promised a weary nation that there would be no mass lockdowns of schools or businesses.
“I know you’re tired, and I know you’re disappointed. We all want this to end. But we’re still at it,” Biden said. “We have more equipment than ever before We are ready, we will deal with it.”
Scientists don’t know everything about omicrons yet, but they do know that vaccination provides strong protection against serious illness and death. The variant has spread at such an alarming rate that the Biden administration acted quickly to offer new tests and additional support.
Biden’s decision is a cornerstone of a plan for the government to buy 500 million coronavirus rapid tests for free shipments to Americans starting in January. The White House said people would use a new website to order their tests, which would then be sent at no charge by US mail.
It’s a big change for Biden, who has previously urged many Americans to buy hard-to-find tests on their own and then sought reimbursement from his health insurance. For the first time, the US government will send free COVID-19 tests directly to Americans, after more than a year urged by public health experts.
Experts had criticized Biden’s early buy-first, pay-later approach and warned that the US would face another round of problems with testing at a critical time. Testing advocates point to places like the UK and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommend people test themselves twice a week.
The federal government will also set up new test sites and use the Defense Production Act to help build more tests. The first new federally-backed testing site will open in New York this week. The new test sites will be added to the 20,000 already available. White House officials said they are working with Google to help people search for “free COVID tests near me.”
Still, Biden’s testing boom would be needed to support a further surge in production for all Americans to test at the recommended rate of twice weekly. According to the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, America will need 2.3 billion tests per month for everyone 12 years of age and older. That’s nearly five times the half-billion tests that Biden will deploy.
Currently, the US can conduct about 600 million tests per month, with home tests accounting for about half, according to researchers at Arizona State University.
In another aspect of Biden’s amped-up plan, he is set to deploy an additional 1,000 soldiers with medical skills to assist hospitals under the virus’ surge. Additionally, he is immediately sending federal medical personnel to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. There are also plans to build additional ventilators and protective equipment from the national stockpile, expanding hospital resources.
As a backstop, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will deploy hundreds of ambulances and paramedical teams so that if one hospital fills up, they can move patients to open beds in other facilities. Ambulances are already headed to New York and Maine, and paramedic teams are going to New Hampshire, Vermont and Arizona.
But vaccination remains the main defense, because it can ward off the disease in the first place. The government will support multiple vaccination sites and provide hundreds of personnel to administer the shots. The new rules will make it easier for pharmacists to operate across state lines to administer a wider range of shots.
Some leading experts said Biden’s plan is a step in the right direction, but given the risk of infections and hospitals being overwhelmed, the president has not gone far enough to try to get ahead of the virus.
“I don’t know if the proposed measures are going to be enough,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Hotez said the government may need to go a step further by authorizing a second booster shot for health care workers to prevent infections that would bypass physicians when all-hands are required.
Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., said the administration “finally saw the light” on testing with Biden’s plan to ship 500 million tests, but the type of test is important at a time. When the disease can spread rapidly.
“We don’t have control over this epidemic here,” Topol said. “We need to pull out all the stops, and we’re still not doing that.”
Topol said the government could redefine “thorough vaccination” as three shots instead of two Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with Biden ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to ban air travel by people who There are no complete vaccines, and the government can exercise its authority. Increasing production of high quality masks for free distribution.
“There’s a lack of courage,” said Topol. “I am disappointed.”
Scientists say that Omicron spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains, including Delta. It accounted for nearly three-quarters of new US infections last week.
Underscoring the reach of the virus, the White House said late Monday that Biden had been in close contact with a staff member who later tested positive for COVID-19. The employee spent about 30 minutes around the president on Air Force One on Friday. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the staffer, who was fully vaccinated and scaled, tested positive on Monday.
Psaki said Biden has tested negative twice since Sunday and would test again on Wednesday. Citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Psaki said Biden does not need to be quarantined and will continue with his regular schedule.
In New York City, about 42,600 people across the city tested positive from Wednesday to Saturday – compared with fewer than 35,800 in the entire month of November. Not so many people have tested positive in the city in such a short period of time since the test became widely available.
Associated Press writers Matthew Perrone, Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the trip was to Orangeburg, not Orange.