Washington — As COVID-19 cases surge in the days before Christmas, President Biden is unveiling new plans to increase support for hospitals, improve access totesting through hundreds of millions of and expand the availability of vaccines that can reduce the risks from the Omicron variant.
Mr. Biden addressing the nation Tuesday afternoon from the White House to discuss the new steps. Previewing the speech, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president will outline how the country is preparing to counter the surge in Omicron infections, among other things.
She said the free tests, 500 million in total, will be available starting in January, when Americans will be able to log onto a website and request them. The timing of when those tests will arrive on doorsteps and how they will be delivered has yet to be announced.
The world is confronting the prospect of a second straight holiday season with COVID-19 as families and friends begin to gather while the variant quickly spreads. Scientists don’t yet know whether Omicron causes more serious disease, but they do know that vaccination should offer strong protections against severe illness and death.Mr. Biden was expected to expected to emphasize data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that show the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized, and 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
The administration is prepared to deploy an additional 1,000 troops in medical professions to hospitals 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 besides expanding hospital capacity to handle infected patients.
In addition to purchasing the 500 million rapid at-home tests, the government will also establish new testing sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. There will also be pop-up vaccination sites, hundreds of new people to administer the vaccines and new rules that make it easier for pharmacists to work across state lines.
Psaki said at Monday’s press briefing that the president doesn’t plan to impose any lockdowns and will instead focus on urging people to come forward for inoculation and booster shots.
“This is not a speech about locking the country down. This is a speech about the benefits of being vaccinated,” Psaki told reporters.
Mr. Biden’s top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said over the weekend that the president will issue “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.
Mr. Biden has found himself in the delicate position of both alerting the country to the dangers posed by Omicron and reassuring Americans that the vaccines will protect them. White House officials are looking to ease the nation back toward accepting the reality of an endemic virus with far lower stakes for the vaccinated. This has meant setting a difficult balance as cases rise and as deaths and serious illness among the unvaccinated dominate headlines.
Underscoring how widespread the virus is, the White House said late Monday that Mr. Biden hadwith a staff member who later tested positive for COVID-19. The staffer spent about 30 minutes around the president on Air Force One on Friday on a trip from Orange, South Carolina, to Philadelphia. The staffer, who was fully vaccinated and boosted, tested positive earlier Monday, Psaki said.
Psaki said Mr. Biden has tested negative twice since Sunday and will test again on Wednesday. Citing guidance from the CDC, Psaki said Biden didn’t need to quarantine and would continue with his regular schedule.
There are 40 million eligible but unvaccinated American adults. Efforts to increase vaccination rates have struggled to overcome a series of political, social and cultural divides. Psaki said the president plans to appeal to survival instincts.
“Our health experts assess that you are 14 times more likely to die of COVID if you have not been vaccinated versus vaccinated,” she said Monday.
Scientists say Omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including Delta. It has already , accounting for nearly three-quarters of new infections last week.
Early studies suggest that thefor 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.
In New York City, nearly 42,600 people citywide tested positive from Wednesday through Saturday — compared with fewer than 35,800 in the entire month of November. The city has never had so many people test positive in such a short period of time since testing became widely available; there’s no clear picture of how many people got the virus during the city’s first surge in the spring of 2020.