Biden shifts US plan to address surge in COVID-19 cases
President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced plans to purchase and distribute for free 500 million coronavirus rapid tests starting in January, and to help staff hospitals.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that the government would provide 500 million free rapid tests, increase support for hospitals under strain and redouble vaccination and boosting efforts.
The outbreak from omicron, the latest strain of the coronavirus, has pushed the federal government to get more aggressive in addressing a rising wave of infections. But Biden promised a weary nation that there would not be a mass lockdown of schools or businesses.
“I know you’re tired, and I know you’re frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we’re still in it,” Mr. Biden said. “We also have more tools than we had before. We’re ready, we’ll get through this.”
In remarks Tuesday at the White House, Mr. Biden detailed major changes to his COVID-19 winter plan. The federal government plans to purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests for free shipment to Americans starting in January. People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent by U.S. mail at no charge, the White House said.
It marks a major shift for Mr. Biden, who earlier had called for many Americans to purchase the hard-to-find tests on their own and then seek reimbursement from their health insurance. For the first time, the U.S. government will send free COVID-19 tests directly to Americans, after more than a year of urging by public health experts.
Experts had criticized Biden's initial buy-first, get-paid-later approach as unwieldy and warned that the U.S. would face another round of problems with testing at a critical time. Testing advocates point to places like the U.K. and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommend people test themselves twice a week.
The federal government will also establish new testing sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. The first new federally supported testing site will open in New York this week. The new testing sites will add to 20,000 already available. White House officials said they're working with Google so that people will be able to find them by searching “free COVID test near me.”
Still, Mr. Biden's testing surge would need to be supported by a further jump in production for all Americans to test at the recommended rate of twice weekly. The U.S. would need 2.3 billion tests per month for everyone 12 and older to do that, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s nearly five times the half-billion tests Biden will deploy.
Currently, the U.S. can conduct about 600 million tests per month, with home tests accounting for about half, according to researchers from Arizona State University.
In another prong to Mr. Biden's amped-up plan, he is prepared to deploy an additional 1,000 troops with medical skills to assist hospitals buckling 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 ready 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 paramedic teams so that if one hospital fills up, they can transport 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.
The federal government also plans to support multiple vaccination sites and provide hundreds of personnel to administer shots. New rules will make it easier for pharmacists to work across state lines to administer a broader range of shots.
Some prominent experts said that Biden’s plan is a step in the right direction but the president hasn’t gone far enough to try to get ahead of the virus, given the threat of hospitals being overwhelmed.
“I don’t know that the measures being proposed are going to be adequate,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Mr. Hotez said the government may need go a step further by authorizing a second booster shot for health care workers.
Associated Press writers Matthew Perrone, Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.