WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden announced new actions Tuesday to fight the omicron variant of the coronavirus, measures that include dispatching 500 million at-home tests to Americans, creating new federal testing sites and deploying 1,000 service members to hospitals across the county.
“Covid has been a tough adversary,” Biden said. “We've shown that we're tougher, tougher because we have the power of science and vaccines that prevent illness and save lives and tougher because of our resolve.”
Senior administration officials told reporters the first actions will begin this week with the federal government opening new testing sites — the first in New York — in states that need additional testing capacity. Biden has also instructed the federal government to purchase 500 million at-home tests that Americans can order through a website come January and get delivered to their homes at no cost.
The White House has not yet released information on how long it will take vaccines to get to American homes after they have been ordered or what delivery services will be used to transport them. They have said, however, that they are working to ensure the website can handle large amounts of traffic when it launches.
“We're taking even more steps to make it easy to get tested and get tested for free,” Biden said.
These actions will be in addition to the federal government reimbursing insured Americans for at-home tests starting in mid-January and the 50 million tests they have promised to send to Americans without insurance. The administration will also continue to use the Defense Production Act to accelerate the production of tests.
Responding to criticism his administration has faced over the current cost and production barriers to consumer testing products, Biden insisted that no one could have anticipated how rapidly omicron would spread.
Senior administration officials say Biden has asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to deploy an additional 1,000 service members to hospitals in January and February to help hospitals handle any surge in cases that omicron causes. Additional emergency response teams will be deployed to six states — Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont — with over 100 federal medical personnel and paramedics. The administration has already deployed 300 personnel since the discovery of omicron.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be activating the National Response Coordination Center at the request of the president and deploying planners to assess hospital needs. The agency is already deploying hundreds of paramedics to states to transport patients from overflowing hospitals.
According to senior administration officials, the U.S. government has hundreds of millions of N95 masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of gowns, and over 100,000 ventilators in the national stockpile to send to states that need them. The Department of Health and Human Services has already sent ventilators to Indiana, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire.
While Biden is shoring up hospital resources, the White House also insists the best way to combat the virus is to get vaccinated and boosted. Senior administration officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open new vaccination clinics across the country and deploy federal vaccinators in 12 states.
Senior administration officials said the White House believes Americans have the tools to get through the new wave of infections caused by omicron. In the U.S., 73% of American adults are fully vaccinated and around 1 million booster shots are being administered daily. Senior administration officials said vaccinated and boosted Americans who get infected will likely have mild to no symptoms, while unvaccinated Americans are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from Covid-19.
The president stressed that the country is not in the same position as the beginning of the pandemic.
“This is not March of 2020,” Biden said. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more. We just have to stay focused.”
Biden encouraged Americans who are fully vaccinated and boosted to continue with their holiday celebrations but suggested they mask up while traveling.
“If you are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you planned it,” Biden said.
Tens of millions of adults have spurned the shot, however, and Biden framed their behavior as selfish and irresponsible.
“To folks who are not vaccinated … your choice is not just a choice about you, it affects other people,” Biden said. “You're putting other people are at risk, their loved ones, their friends, neighbors, strangers you run into, and your choice can be the difference between life or death.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted a sixfold increase of infections with omicron in only one week. On Sunday, the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the variant would become dominant.
“It's going to take over,” Fauci on CNN's "State of the Union." “And be prudent in everything else you do: When you travel, in your indoor settings that are congregated, wear a mask.”
Biden said this would be a critical moment for the country and urged Americans to be united.
“There is no challenge too big for America — I mean this from the bottom of my heart — no challenge,” Biden said. “We've come through better and stronger because we stay together as the United States of America. That’s what we have to keep doing today. We can do this together.”
The U.S. has clocked more than 50 million cases and 800,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic to date.
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