President Joe Biden plans to announce his latest battle plan for fighting the formidable Omicron variant on Tuesday, with measures to include distributing 500 million free rapid COVID tests to the public, opening new federal testing sites, sending out hundreds of federal vaccinators, and providing 1,000 military medical personnel to bolster beleaguered hospitals.
The measures, many of which will not take place until January, were outlined in a fact sheet from the White House.
A website will be created where people can request tests be sent to their homes, but the tests won’t be available until January, as Biden plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of COVID testing.
Three weeks ago, Biden announced his winter pandemic strategy, pledging that 150 million Americans with private health insurance would soon be able to get reimbursed for at-home COVID tests. He also said there would be improved access to booster shots and announced new testing requirements for international travelers.
But since the first U.S. Omicron case was reported on Dec. 1, the highly contagious variant has swiftly become the dominant variant in the nation, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even if the Omicron variant ends up causing less severe disease, the explosion in cases means it is still possible that hospitals will become overwhelmed, experts have said.
“That’s the big concern,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told The New York Times. “If there are a lot of people getting sick, even if only a small portion of them are getting severely ill, that could still be a huge number of people.”
Another expert said that testing has become paramount.
“We have to acknowledge the reality that unfortunately, with a heavy heart, the virus is in charge and we need to take back control, and the only way to do that as a society is to test and isolate, test and isolate, repeat, repeat, repeat,” Mara Aspinall, an expert in medical diagnostics at Arizona State University, told the Times.
Biden was himself exposed to the coronavirus late last week but has since tested negative, White House officials said Monday, the Times reported. With Americans now anxious about their holiday travel plans, he will try on Tuesday to reassure the nation while reminding people that vaccination and booster shots remain the best protection against the Omicron variant.
Biden will say that if people are vaccinated and follow other social distancing guidelines, including wearing masks in public places, “they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays” with their families, a White House official said, the Times reported.
Some are concerned that the White House hasn’t urged people to do things such as cancel travel plans and avoid public transportation, and the Biden administration is also trying to avoid talk of lockdowns.
“This is not a speech about locking the country down,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, the Times reported. “This is a speech outlining and being directly clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we’re going to take to increase access, increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.”
Visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for more on COVID vaccines.
SOURCE: White House, fact sheet, Dec. 21, 2021; The New York Times