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Biden to double free COVID tests, add N95s to fight omicron

Biden plans to send 1,000 military medics to hospitals in six states as part of a step-up of the federal government's omicron response.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the government will double to 1 billion the rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests to be distributed free to Americans, along with “high-quality masks," as he highlighted his efforts to “surge” resources to help the country weather the spike in coronavirus cases.

Biden also announced that starting next week 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying across the country to help overwhelmed medical facilities ease staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant. Speaking at the White House, he said six additional military medical teams will be deployed to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in at-home quarantines due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who have already been sent to states to help with acute shortages.

Biden acknowledged that, “I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year" as virus cases reach new heights. But he insisted that it remains “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people test positive for the virus, but Biden noted medical figures showing that people are far less likely to suffer serious illness and death if they've received a shot: “What happens after that could not be more different.”

Biden's comments come as his administration's focus is shifting to easing disruptions from the spike in cases that is also contributing to grocery shortages and flight cancellations, rather than preventing the transmission of the virus.

On Tuesday, Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, told Congress that the highly transmissible strain will infect “most people” and that the focus should turn to ensuring critical services can continue uninterrupted.

“I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID, all right?” she said. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function — transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”

Biden said that he is directing his team to double its procurement of rapid COVID-19 tests to be delivered for free to Americans through a forthcoming federal website, as he seeks to respond to criticism over shortages and long lines for tests. The initial order was for 500 million tests, and now the federal government will purchase 1 billion at-home testing kits.

The initial batch of test kits will be available starting next week, Biden said, when the administration launches a new website where Americans can request the free tests. The rest of the tests will be delivered over the coming months.

Biden also announced that for the first time his administration was planning to make “high-quality masks," including N95s, which are most effective at preventing transmission of the virus, available for free. He said his administration would announce details next week.

The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said this week. And though research has shown those masks to be better protection, they are often more uncomfortable, and health officials are not altering their guidance to recommend against less-protective cloth masks.

The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.

Biden encouraged Americans to wear masks when indoors to slow the spread of the virus, even as he acknowledged they're a “pain in the neck”

“Next week we’ll announce how we’re making high-quality masks available to the American people for free," he added.

During Thursday's remarks Biden was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who recently recovered from his own case of COVID-19, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. They were hearing about the work of the more than 800 military personnel who have been helping civilian hospitals since Thanksgiving and the more than 15,000 National Guard members whose work supporting vaccinations, testing and caring for patients is being covered by the federal government.

The White House said the they spoke with federal personnel who are already on the ground in Arizona, Michigan and New York to hear about their experiences.

Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that as of Thursday, there are now 15,200 Guard members around the country supporting COVID-19 missions.

State Guard leaders from Ohio, New York and Colorado told reporters on Thursday that they are using only vaccinated troops for missions that directly interact with the public, including at testing sites and in patient care at hospitals.

The White House said the teams will support Henry Ford Hospital just outside Detroit, University Hospital in Newark, the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Cleveland Clinic and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

The deployment by the Department of Defense will join another team sent by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Bob Riney, president of Healthcare Operations and chief operating officer for Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System. He said the phases of the operations would come together “in a highly coordinated way.”

“They’re not overlapping. They’re complementary,” he told reporters Thursday.

The first team of medical personnel arrived Sunday and went through an orientation before helping patients on Monday. They are providing care for up to 24 beds and supporting staff at Henry Ford Wyandotte with in-patient care and surgeries, Riney said.

The first phase is through Jan. 21 and the second team will come for an additional 30 days. “We are looking at 45 days of total support and that has a much more meaningful impact,” he said.

“We welcome and are grateful for any support that we have,” said Riney, who told reporters that the federal government chose to address needs at the Wyandotte hospital after the health system submitted its current situation and data to Health and Human Services.

A spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic said the hospital system is “receiving federal support from a team of approximately 20 military medical professionals.”

Spokesperson Andrea Pacetti said they likely will begin working next week at the Clinic’s main campus in Cleveland. CEO and President Dr. Tom Mihaljevic in a statement on Thursday said: “We are grateful for the federal support as we continue to face a challenging COVID-19 surge in our Ohio hospitals. The addition of military medical personnel allows us to care for more patients in our community.”

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