U.S. President Joe Biden is making a new concerted effort Tuesday to combat the surging omicron variant of the coronavirus, dispatching federal health care workers to short-handed hospitals, pre-positioning the national stockpile of medical equipment around the country and offering 500 million free COVID-19 test kits to Americans.
Biden is laying out his attack plan in a White House address as the number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is markedly increasing again, with 143,000 recorded on Monday, along with another 1,300 deaths. Nearly three-fourths of the new cases are linked to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Ahead of Biden’s speech, the White House said that new cases among already vaccinated people will likely spread because of the omicron variant, but that the medical effects “will most likely be mild.”
But, it warned, “In contrast, unvaccinated individuals are at high risk of getting COVID-19, getting severely ill, and even dying.”
The government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 204 million Americans, or 61%, are fully vaccinated, up from less than 1% at the beginning of 2021. But only 60.8 million people so far have gotten booster shots that health experts say provide the most protection against the omicron variant.
About 50 million Americans have not gotten any vaccination shots, many of them objecting to the government’s effort to get more people inoculated, saying it violates their freedom to make their own medical choices.
Among some groups of people, getting vaccinated remains controversial – often, according to surveys, those who voted for former President Donald Trump in his unsuccessful 2020 re-election bid. Trump, a coronavirus victim while president, was booed by some supporters at an appearance in the southwestern state of Texas over the weekend when he told them he had gotten a booster shot.
The White House said the actions Biden is announcing Tuesday “will mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our health care system, while increasing access to free testing and getting more shots in arms to keep people safe and our schools and economy open.”
It said Biden will mobilize an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses and other health care workers to send to hospitals that need them in January and February. The White House said emergency medical response teams have been dispatched to six states with a shortage of health care workers.
The U.S. is also expanding hospital bed capacity on an emergency basis ahead of the expected surge of the omicron variant cases, the White House said, while deploying hundreds of ambulances and emergency medical teams to transport patients to open beds.
A White House fact sheet on Biden’s address said the government has hundreds of millions of N-95 face masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of hospital gowns and more than 100,000 ventilators in its strategic national stockpile, “all ready to ship out, if and when states need them.”
It said there are now 20,000 free COVID-19 testing sites across the U.S., and that the government is buying a half-billion at-home, rapid test kits for distribution to Americans who want them, starting next month.
The White House said that in recent months the government had added 10,000 vaccination sites across the country and now has 90,000. It plans to add new pop-up vaccination sites at some scattered spots across the U.S. and said private pharmacies are adding workers to administer more vaccinations.