Biden plans to expand testing and reinforce hospitals facing Omicron

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President Joe Biden will roll out new measures Tuesday designed to expand coronavirus testing and reinforce hospitals against an anticipated wave of infections from the more contagious Omicron variant that could strain the nation’s health system once again.

The administration plans to send thousands more troops and medical personnel to aid overburdened hospitals, set up FEMA surge facilities and prepare shipments of protective gear to hard-hit spots around the country. It will further scale up vaccination sites and reopen federal testing locations.

And in a notable move, the federal government is purchasing 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans will be able to order for free beginning in January, a senior administration official told reporters.

The initiatives come as Omicron blankets the U.S. and amount to a redeployment of emergency defenses seen last year in the hope of containing the virus’ spread without resorting to school closures and economic lockdowns.

“We know we have the tools to get through this wave,” the senior administration official said.

Biden will formally announce the new efforts in speech this afternoon, where he’s also expected to deliver a stark message: If you’re vaccinated, life can continue as normal. But those who aren’t are putting themselves and the health system at grave risk.

The tone marks a shift from earlier this month, when Biden sought to unify the nation behind a broader winter Covid-19 plan that he hailed as an opportunity to “put the divisiveness behind us.”

Yet in the intervening weeks, Omicron tore across the country, driving up cases and hospitalizations and fueling testing shortages and fears of swamped hospitals.

The variant is now dominant within the U.S., the CDC confirmed earlier this week. While available Covid vaccines still provide significant protection, officials have warned that breakthrough infections are now much more likely among those who have yet to get their booster shots.

The surge means Biden — who is already grappling with falling approval ratings and the public’s pandemic fatigue — is likely to begin his second year in office the way he began his first: Attempting to fend off a fierce resurgence of Covid-19 with no clear end to the public health crisis.

Those concerns are driving the planned build-out of testing and hospital capacity, even as Biden and top health officials downplay the threat to the majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated.

The administration is setting up federal testing sites again, with the first due to open in New York City this week. And after weeks of criticism over its reluctance to send out free at-home tests, the government will buy 500 million tests that it plans to mail out on request.

Those free tests will not be available until January, and the administration is still setting up the website where people can request them. Officials have also yet to settle such questions as how many tests can be ordered at once.

But the purchase comes in addition to the 50 million at-home tests that the administration earlier committed to distributing to community health centers, as well as a separate initiative requiring private insurers to reimburse the cost of at-home tests that’s due to take effect in mid-January.

In addition to expanding testing availability and preparing reinforcements for hospitals, Biden will also announce plans to ramp up vaccination efforts by opening up new vaccination clinics and working with pharmacies to add more appointment times and capacity.

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