Half a billion at-home coronavirus tests will be sent free to the American public in an effort to fight the surging Omicron variant, Joe Biden will announce on Tuesday.
The move is part of a renewed White House effort that includes the Pentagon calling up 1,000 troops to deploy to hard-hit hospitals and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) working to expand medical capacity.
As Covid-19 once again rages across America, there is no indication that the president will discourage holiday gatherings, impose vaccine mandates for domestic air travel or seek a new round of lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Monday that Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version in the US, accounting for three in four new infections last week. Biden, who earlier this month unveiled a winter plan to combat the pandemic dogging his political fortunes, has been forced to revise his strategy.
In an address from the White House on Tuesday, he will announce that his administration is buying 500m at-home, rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans who want them, with initial delivery starting next month. A website will enable people to order them to be delivered to their home for free.
The decision follows growing pressure on the White House to make free tests more widely available. At a recent briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki asked sarcastically: “Should we just send one to every American?” Critics pointed out that the UK does just that and wondered why the US could not follow suit.
In a preview call with reporters, a senior administration official said: “The first delivery of these tests from the manufacturers will arrive in January. We’re setting up a free and easy system to get those tests out to Americans, including the website. We’re actively working to finalise those distribution mechanisms and we’ll share more details in the weeks ahead on that.”
A six-fold increase in Omicron’s share of Covid-19 infections in just one week has seen long queues from at testing sites in major cities. Biden will announce new federal testing sites around the country. The first will be created this week in New York, which just reported a record number of new daily cases.
Biden will also unveil additional steps to ensure people can get vaccinated and boosted, including new pop-up vaccination clinics and deploying additional vaccinators. Currently 73% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated.
Psaki told reporters on Monday: “For those who choose to remain unvaccinated, he’ll issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths. That is not trying to scare people – or maybe it is trying to make clear to people in the country what the risks are here of not being vaccinated.”
Hospitals are battling rising Omicron hospitalisations, mostly among the unvaccinated, with some near breaking point and turning non-Covid patients away. Biden’s winter plan made more than 60 winter Covid-19 emergency response team deployments available to states.
He will direct the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, to ready an additional 1,000 service members – military doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other medical personnel – to deploy to hospitals during January and February, as needed.
“These doctors and nurses and others will be ready to deploy to neighbourhood hospitals that need them,” the official said. “God willing, we will not need all of these servicemen and women but, if we do, they’re ready and they’re mobilised.”
Six emergency response teams – with more than 100 clinical personnel and paramedics – are deploying to six states now: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. This is on top of the 300 federal medical personnel that deployed in response to Omicron.
In addition, Biden is instructing Fema to mobilise planning teams to work with every state and territory to assess hospital needs ahead of winter surges, and to start expanding hospital bed capacity now.
A White House fact sheet added: “To get ahead of surges, Fema is ready to deploy hundreds of ambulances and emergency medical teams so that if one hospital fills up, they can transport patients to open beds in other facilities.”
It also noted that the US government has hundreds of millions of N-95 masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of gowns and more than 100,000 ventilators in the strategic national stockpile. Last week the administration sent 330 ventilators to states such as Indiana, Michigan, Maine, and New Hampshire.
Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.
In what is likely to prove a preview of Biden’s central message just ahead of Christmas, when millions of people will be travelling, the senior administration official added: “The bottom line for the American people is this: we should take all Omicron seriously but this is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.
“We have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have the planning to get through this. If you’re fully vaccinated and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected.”