WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced the purchase of a half-billion, at-home rapid COVID-19 tests and the mobilization of 1,000 military medical personnel to overburdened hospitals, as officials confront for a new surge in infections driven by the omicron variant.
The president unveiled the stepped-up measures in a speech from the White House as the nation – already fatigued by a pandemic that’s lasted nearly two years – faces rising COVID-19 infections.
Biden said Americans will be able to request the free-at-home COVID-19 tests be mailed to their homes by accessing an online website. It comes as shortages have led to long lines and overwhelmed hospitals in hot spots while Americans crisscross the country for the holiday season.
“I know you’re tired. I know you’re frustrated. We all want this to be over,” Biden said in his remarks from the White House State Dining Room “But we’re still in it. And this is a critical moment. But we also have more tools than we’ve ever had before.”
Americans will not be able to request the at-home tests online until January, meaning they can’t access the kits before millions are expected to travel for Christmas. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is still working through details of the program, including how many kits will be available for households and whether some groups would be prioritized.
The 500 million tests – among eight versions approved by the Food and Drug Administration – are in addition to 50 million tests the federal government began distributing this month to community health centers. Biden said his administration has also worked to make it easier to search online to find nearby COVID-19 tests.
‘No this is not March 2020,’ Biden says
The U.S. has lagged behind other nations in testing capacity. Pressed by reporters about the shortages, Biden said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did.”
The moves come as the country faces a new challenge in the fight against COVID-19: Federal health officials announced Monday the omicron variant accounted for 73% of new cases last week, a nearly six-fold increase in the new variant’s share of infections in only one week.
Biden thanked Americans for their “perseverance and courage” and returned to a familiar message: urging Americans to get vaccinated and receive their third booster shot. He stressed the unvaccinated face a greater likelihood of hospitalization or death from COVID-19.
“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said. He told people who are vaccinated to “remain vigilant” and wear face masks indoors in public settings but said they are protected from severe illness and death.
“If you got your booster shot, if you are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you plan. You’ve done the right thing.”
Despite the urgency, Biden rejected concerns that the U.S. could return to where it was in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic started.
“No, this is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more. We just have to stay focused.”
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Biden pointed to stockpiled medical equipment at hospitals as another difference. And because of greater overall knowledge about the virus, Biden said schools don’t need to shut down like last year.
“We should all be concerned about omicron but not panicked,” Biden said.
The president also announced plans to send six emergency response teams to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont and will stand up new federal testing sites with the first location in New York City this week.
“This free testing is going to help reduce the waiting lines,” Biden said. “Sometimes it’s hours. We’re going to continue to add federal testing sites where needed, so if you want an immediate test, there’s a place where you can go get it.”
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Some major U.S. cities announced new restrictions on Monday to address a spike in COVID-19 cases. The District of Columbia re-imposed its mask mandate and said city employees would be required to get vaccinated, including receiving a booster shot, while Los Angeles officials said its New Year’s Eve party planned for downtown will be streamed with no in-person audience.
Why the US lags behind on rapid testing
The administration has taken some previous steps to expand access to test kits, but experts have criticized the government for not doing more – particularly for not making tests as cheap and easy to get as they are in the United Kingdom and some other countries. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Dec. 6 dismissed the idea of sending free tests to all American households, drawing criticism from many health experts.
“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki said, raising issues such as the cost of doing so.
Part of the reason the U.S. hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand for testing stems from regulation of the industry, according to Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and testing expert who serves as chief science officer at biotech software company eMed.
Mina said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been regulating rapid COVID-19 tests as medical devices instead of a public health tool, requiring companies to conduct clinical trials that cost millions of dollars and last months. That slows the process of getting tests in the hands of American consumers, he said, and only a handful of COVID-19 rapid test manufacturers have kits available in the U.S., compared to the global market.
“We’re in a pandemic, a fast-moving respiratory infectious disease, and speed of a result is much more important for a public health test than sensitivity,” Mina said. “This is about (stopping)transmission. Nobody is talking about a new test for medical purposes.”
Looking abroad, the U.K. has been able to stand up one of the most robust rapid test distribution programs in the world, Mina said, because they recognized the need for a more efficient regulatory framework to deal with the speed of this virus’ transmission.
“They immediately saw the need to think about these tests differently,” Mina said of the U.K. “And in two years it’s just unfathomable, in my view, that we have not recognized that the way we’re were evaluating rapid tests is just antiquated.”
Biden has tried to make more tests available ahead of the holiday season. Earlier this month, he unveiled his winter strategy amid growing fears of the highly transmissible omicron variant, which included requiring private health insurance companies to cover the total cost of at-home COVID-19 tests next year and distributing free, at-home tests through health centers and rural clinics.
The White House also announced a $1 billion investment to boost the supply of at-home rapid COVID-19 tests in October, with the aim of making millions of rapid tests available to Americans as the holiday season ramped up.
But images of long lines at drive-through testing sites and the words “sold out” next to images of at-home testing kits on pharmacy websites raises questions about whether the White House is doing enough to battle an expected explosive surge, particularly as Americans travel for the holidays and the omicron variant begins to spread at a faster clip.
“It’s spotty. In some places you can easily get a test. But in other places, you can’t,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top coronavirus adviser said during remarks at the National Press Club Monday. “I know that. I’ve tried myself.”
‘Viral blizzard’ is coming
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who led the Food and Drug Administration for the first two years of the Trump administration, said the government is “probably not” doing all it can to provide access to rapid antigen testing.
During a meeting with the USA TODAY Editorial Board earlier this month, Gottlieb said the country has a “critical window” to make COVID-19 tests more ubiquitous as omicron spreads more widely. People need to test themselves not just once before attending a gathering or other higher-risk environment; they need to test the day before, the day of and the day after, he said.
“Flooding the market with diagnostic home diagnostic tests for the next four months, to me, makes eminent sense,” Gottlieb said, “and the best way to do that is to directly subsidize it.”
Michael Osterholm, who advised Biden on COVID-19 during the presidential transition, warned last week that a “viral blizzard” is coming. Osterholm said on CNN that millions of Americans are likely to be infected by omicron over the next three-to-eight weeks.
“That will be overlaid on top of delta,” he said, “and we’re not yet sure exactly how that’s going to work out.” Delta is another highly contagious variant of the coronavirus.
Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist who advised Biden’s transition team on COVID-19, said the president needs to refocus the conversation around hospitalizations and deaths, rather than infections and cases.
In places like New York City, where the population is highly vaccinated, cases are on the rise but hospitalizations are not. But in places with low vaccination rates, a surge in cases could lead to a surge in hospitalizations and deaths and overwhelm the health care systems.
“It’s tragic because we have those tools to move beyond this, but we’re just not using them,” Gounder said. “I think people need to understand vaccines work best at a population level, they’re not on/off switches at the individual level.”
Just over 60% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
As he urged the unvaccinated to get their shots, Biden noted that former President Donald Trump, who has many followers hesitant of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, said over the weekend that he received his booster shot.
“Maybe one of the few things he and I agree on,” Biden said.
Republicans make up an increasingly disproportionate share of those who remain unvaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health research organization that has been tracking vaccinations. Political partisanship trumps age, race, education level or insurance status as a predictor of whether someone is vaccinated.
Biden’s efforts to impose vaccine requirements on many workers have been impeded by the courts.
While a federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a federal rule that workers at larger businesses get vaccinated or be regularly tested, the Labor Department announcedit would give businesses more time to comply because of the uncertainty created by legal challenges.
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Workers who are not fully vaccinated won’t have to be regularly tested for the coronavirus until Feb. 9, more than a month after the original deadline of Jan. 4.
The administration is also fighting challenges to requirements that health care workers and federal contractors be vaccinated.
“These rules are going to keep workers safe, and keeping workers safe will help keep businesses open,” Biden said. Acknowledging the requirements might not be popular, he said it is meant “not to control your life but to save your life.”
Biden released his winter strategy on Dec. 2, a day after the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in the USA was announced. Now, the variant has been found in at least 39 states. It’s expected to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks.
The plan included:
- Requiring travelers entering the country by air to test negative for the coronavirus within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, instead of within three days.
- Extending through March 18 the requirement that masks be worn on airplanes, trains and public transportation.
- Requiring private health insurance companies to cover 100% of the cost of at-home tests for the coronavirus, beginning in mid-January.
- Launching a public education campaign to encourage 100 million adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors.
- Deploying emergency response teams to support strained hospital system, help with the administration of lifesaving monoclonal antibody treatments and conduct outbreak investigations.