WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — With the omicron variant on the rise, President Joe Biden announced 500 million free rapid tests for Americans, increasing support for hospitals under strain from the variant and an emphasis on vaccination and boosting efforts.
In a speech Tuesday afternoon, Biden announced major changes to his COVID-19 winter plan, his hand forced by the arrival and rapid spread of the omicron variant, whose properties are yet not fully understood by scientists.
His pleas are not political, he emphasized. He noted that former President Donald Trump has gotten his booster shot, and he said it’s Americans’ “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated.
“It’s the only responsible thing to do,” the president said. “Omicron is serious and potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people.”
A cornerstone of the plan is Biden’s decision for the government to purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests and ship them free to Americans starting in January. People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent to them by U.S. mail. That marks a major shift for Biden, whose earlier plan had called for many Americans to purchase the hard-to-find tests on their own and then seek reimbursement from their health insurance. Public health experts had criticized Biden’s initial approach as unwieldy and warned that the U.S. would face another round of problems with testing at a critical time.
To assist hospitals buckling under the new COVID-19 wave, Biden is prepared to deploy an additional 1,000 troops with medical skills as well as direct federal medical personnel to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. There are also plans to send out additional ventilators and equipment from the national stockpile, expanding hospital capacity to handle infected patients.
The government will also stand up 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 aid the public health efforts.
The prospect of a winter chilled by a wave of coronavirus infections is a severe reversal from the optimism projected by Biden some 10 months ago, when he suggested at a CNN town hall that the country would essentially be back to normal by this Christmas.
This comes just two days after the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the omicron variant was “just raging around the world.”
Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta. It has already become the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for nearly three-quarters of new infections last week.
Early studies suggest that the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing an omicron infection but that even without the extra dose, vaccination should still largely protect people from serious sickness or death.
The outbreak from this latest strain of the coronavirus has required the federal government to get more aggressive in addressing the likely 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,” Biden said. “We also have more tools than we had before. We’re ready, we’ll get through this.”
About one in six Americans have received their booster shot, according to data to compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 60% of the population has received two coronavirus vaccine doses, according to CDC data.