WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the government will double to 1 billion rapid COVID-19 tests to be distributed free of charge to Americans along with “high-quality masks,” highlighting its efforts to “build up” resources to help the country cope. with a surge in coronavirus cases.
Biden also announced that starting next week, 1,000 military medics will begin deploying across the country to help overburdened medical facilities alleviate staffing shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant. Speaking at the White House, he said six additional military medical teams would be deployed to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.
Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in home quarantine due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployment will be in addition to other federal medical personnel that have already been sent to the states to provide assistance in case of severe shortages.
Biden acknowledged that “I know we’re all disappointed as we enter this new year” as cases of the virus reach new heights. But he insisted that it remains a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people have tested positive for the virus, but Biden noted medical data showing people are much less likely to get seriously ill and die if they’ve been vaccinated: “What happens after that couldn’t be more different.” “.
Biden’s comments come as his administration’s focus is shifting to mitigating disruptions due to a spike in cases, which also contributes to food shortages and flight cancellations, rather than preventing transmission of the virus.
On Tuesday, Janet Woodcock, acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, told Congress that the highly contagious strain will infect “most people” and that the focus should be on keeping critical services running.
“I think it’s hard to understand what’s really happening right now, which is: most people will get COVID, okay?” she said. “What we need to do is make sure hospitals can still function – transportation, other essential services won’t be disrupted while this is happening.”
Biden said he is directing his team to double the purchase of rapid COVID-19 tests, which will be delivered free to Americans through a future federal website, as he tries to respond to criticism over shortages and long waiting lists for tests. The original order was for 500 million tests, and the federal government will now purchase 1 billion home testing kits.
The first batch of test kits will be available from next week, when the administration launches a new website for Americans to request free tests, Biden said. The remaining tests will be delivered in the coming months.
Biden also announced that for the first time, his administration plans to make “high-quality masks,” including N95s that are most effective in preventing transmission of the virus, available for free. He said his administration would announce details next week.
The White House said this week that the federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks. And while studies have shown these masks provide better protection, they are often more uncomfortable, and health officials are not changing their recommendations to recommend less protective cloth masks.
“The best mask is one that you will wear and that you can wear all day, that you can wear in public spaces,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.
Biden urged Americans to wear masks indoors to slow the spread of the virus, although he acknowledged they were “hurting in the neck.”
“We will announce next week that we are making high-quality masks free for Americans,” he added.
During Thursday’s speech, Biden was joined by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who recently recovered from his own case of COVID-19, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. They heard about the work of more than 800 military personnel who have been helping civilian hospitals since Thanksgiving, and more than 15,000 members of the National Guard whose work to support vaccinations, testing and patient care is covered by the federal government.
The White House said they spoke to federal personnel already in Arizona, Michigan and New York to learn about their experiences.
General Dan Hokanson, National Guard Bureau Chief, said as of Thursday there are now 15,200 Guardsmen across the country supporting COVID-19 missions.
State guard leaders from Ohio, New York and Colorado told reporters Thursday they only use vaccinated troops for missions that interact directly with the public, including at testing sites and when caring for patients in hospitals.
The White House said teams will support Henry Ford Hospital near Detroit, University Hospital in Newark, University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Cleveland Clinic and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
The Department of Defense deployment will join another team sent by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Bob Riney, president of health operations and chief operating officer of Detroit Health System Henry Ford. He said the phases of the operation would proceed in a “well-coordinated manner”.
“They don’t overlap. They complement each other,” he told reporters on Thursday.
The first group of medical personnel arrived on Sunday and were briefed before attending to patients on Monday. They provide care for 24 beds and support staff at the Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital in inpatient care and operations, Rainey said.
The first stage will last until January 21, while the second team will arrive for another 30 days. “We are looking forward to 45 days of full support and that will have a much more meaningful impact,” he said.
“We welcome and are grateful for any support we provide,” said Rainey, who told reporters that the federal government has decided to address the needs at Wyandotte Hospital after the health system submitted the current situation and data to the Health and Human Services Service.
A spokesman for the Cleveland Clinic said the hospital system “receives federal support from a team of approximately 20 military medics.”
Andrea Pacetti, spokeswoman, said they will likely begin operations next week at the clinic’s main Cleveland campus. CEO and President Dr. Tom Michalewicz, in a statement Thursday, said, “We are grateful for federal support as we continue to face a major resurgence of COVID-19 in our Ohio hospitals. The addition of military medical staff allows us to care for more patients in our community.”
AP contributors Alexandra Jaffe and Lolita S. Baldor in Washington, Corey Williams in Detroit, and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland.