The federal government will purchase half a billion at-home tests for Americans and provide them for free, President Joe Biden said in a national address about the fast rise over the past few weeks of the Omicron variant, now the most dominant strain in the U.S. “We have to do more, we have to do better, and we will,” Biden said.
“We should all be concerned about Omicron, not panicked,” the President said. “If you’re fully vaccinated, especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected.” But, he added, “We aren’t as vaccinated as a country as we should be.”
Biden emphasized that deaths have been largely among unvaccinated individuals, but admitted that “because Omicron spreads so easily,” we will see cases in vaccinated people. “But these cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness,” Biden said, adding, “You should still remain vigilant,” and wear masks indoors. But, he said, it’s safe to gather for the holidays. “You’ve done the right thing. You can enjoy the holiday season,” the President said while encouraging people who haven’t been vaccinated or boosted to get their shots soon.
To get more people vaccinated, he said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be opening more vaccine clinics and deploying providers to administer initial vaccines and boosters, particularly in states with high demand. As for parents, Biden encouraged getting children above the age of five vaccinated. “Stop waiting. Six million children in our country ages 5-11 are vaccinated. Get your children protected today, now,” he said. He also encouraged vaccination for parents with children not yet eligible for the vaccine. “Your choice could be life or death. … Please get vaccinated. It’s the only responsible thing to do,” he said.
Medical misinformation, unfortunately, has caused many to be skeptical of the vaccine. “It’s wrong, it’s immoral,” Biden said. “I call on the purveyors of misinformation to stop it. Stop it now.”
In order to receive free Covid-19 tests, Americans will need to request them online, meaning those without access to an internet connection may still struggle to find tests. The Biden administration has received criticism that it has not done enough to lower the cost of tests and distribute them to the American people. Right now, many rapid at-home antigen testing kits sell for $10-15 per test. The cost of PCR tests are not regulated except for Medicare patients, leading many to pay around $100 or more per test.
Sometime next year, Americans will also be able to request reimbursement from their insurance companies for the cost of Covid-19 tests. The White House has said it will issue rules for the reimbursements in mid-January, and the plan will go into effect sometime later but will not be retroactive. That means people likely won’t be able to apply for reimbursement for tests purchased before the plan takes effect, The New York Times reported.
To help hospitals coping with an influx of Covid patients, the government will deploy 1,000 troops — military doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other medical personnel — to medical facilities around the country for the months of January and February. An additional six emergency response teams composed of more than 100 providers are deploying to the states of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Vermont. FEMA will also help states and hospitals to add capacity, as many facilities are already overwhelmed beyond their limits with Covid cases, and staff are burning out. The emergency management agency has been deploying hundreds of ambulances and emergency medical teams to transport patients from full facilities to hospitals with open beds, the administration said.
Should states run low on supplies, Biden said the government has pre-positioned in strategic locations critical supplies — including masks, gowns, and gloves — from the Strategic National Stockpile. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services is continuing to expedite shipments of ventilators to the states. Taking questions after the speech, Biden signaled he may reverse the ban on travel from some African nations near where Omicron was first identified.
“I know you’re tired, I know you’re frustrated,” Biden said in closing. “We all want this to end, but we’re still in it. This is the critical moment. We also have more tools than we’ve ever had before. We’re ready. We’ll get through this.”