Biden says US to provide 500 million home tests as Omicron surges

US president renews his call for Americans to get vaccinated and receive COVID booster shots amid Omicron variant’s spread.

People wait in long lines to take a free COVID-19 test at a local fire station in Washington, US, December 20, 2021 [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

With COVID-19 cases on the rise across the United States, President Joe Biden has announced a series of steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, including broader access to at-home testing, new vaccination sites and more federal support for “COVID-burdened” hospitals.

Biden outlined his “Winter Plan” in a speech on Tuesday afternoon, pleading with unvaccinated Americans to get their jabs.

He said while the new Omicron variant spreads faster than other strains of the coronavirus, vaccines continue to provide protection from serious illness and death.

“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said.

“You’re at a high risk of getting sick, and if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying.”

The plan came as new coronavirus cases are surging across the US, partly due to the spread of the more contagious Omicron strain, which the World Health Organization (WHO) last month designated as a “variant of concern“.

The WHO said on Monday that there is “consistent evidence” that Omicron is spreading “significantly faster” than the previously dominant Delta variant. “And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

In the US, Omicron already accounts for 73 percent of new infections, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said this week, while the uptick in cases has prompted some major US cities to tighten restrictions and restore indoor mask mandates.

More than 204 million people in the US are considered fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to CDC data, while 60.8 million have received a booster jab.

But Biden said on Tuesday that tens of millions of people remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines, prompting ongoing calls from top health officials for Americans to get jabs to prevent Omicron from spreading further.

Rapid tests, more testing sites

To combat the surge, Biden said his administration would buy 500 million rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests and make them available for free starting in January, while the federal government will continue to establish federal testing sites where needed.

“Because Omicron spreads easily, especially among the unvaccinated, it’s critically important that we know who’s infected; that means we need more testing,” he said.

The president also urged people eligible for booster shots to get them, stressing that they provide additional protection.

“Get your booster shot, wear a mask,” Biden said. “Our doctors have made it clear booster shots provide the strongest protection. Unfortunately, we still have tens of millions of people who are eligible for the booster shot who have not yet gotten.”

All American adults who have received their second jab more than six months ago are eligible for boosters.

‘Extraordinary capability’

Omicron’s surge has also raised concerns about whether US hospitals will be able to respond to increasing numbers of coronavirus patients.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Sunday warned in an interview with broadcaster NBC News that “one thing that’s very clear … is [Omicron’s] extraordinary capability of spreading”.

“It is just … raging through the world,” said Fauci, who added that US hospitals could “be very stressed” in the coming weeks amid the increase in infections, especially in parts of the country where vaccination levels remain low.

Biden said on Tuesday that his administration is working to boost support for hospitals, including through the deployment of US troops and military health workers.

He added that he ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deploy teams to install additional hospital beds in COVID-stricken areas, including in New York and the northeastern state of Maine.

“Our doctors, nurses, hospital staff have gone above and beyond during this pandemic. The strain of stress is real … And we’ll have their backs. We have to let them know we have their backs,” Biden said.

Source: Al Jazeera