President Joe Biden plans to send medically trained military personnel to hospitals this winter as they prepare for the possibility that the omicron variant of the coronavirus could drive one of the darkest chapters of the pandemic yet.
Biden is expected to announce in a speech Tuesday afternoon the deployment and other steps to shore up hospitals threatened with a surge in cases driven by the omicron variant.
The federal government will also purchase half a billion rapid tests to be available beginning in January and will once again tap the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stand up vaccination clinics, as Biden faces a race against the omicron variant spreading like wildfire across the United States and a growing death toll that has already outpaced the pandemic’s first year.
New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data suggest omicron grew from about 1 percent of cases in early December to 73 percent of cases in the U.S. two weeks later. The variant makes up over 90 percent of cases in several regions across the country. That’s a faster rate than even some virologists and epidemiologists predicted.
The speech comes as many public health experts warn the U.S. is poorly prepared for the highly infectious variant to drive a surge across the country at once, rather than in pockets of the country that spike then wane as was seen with prior surges.
People will soon be able to be tested at new federally run sites. The first is slated to open in New York City, where hourslong waits are now common.
The government will purchase and distribute by mail half a billion at-home tests starting in January. People will be able to request these tests through a new website.
The hands-on response represents a stark shift from just two weeks ago when Biden announced a plan that included insurance coverage for rapid tests, which was criticized as cumbersome and insufficient.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month dismissed a reporter's question about shipping free at-home tests.
The at-home tests will be in addition to 50 million tests the administration already pledged to send to community health centers and other organizations that care for low-income people.
In order to prepare hospitals, FEMA is assessing hospital capacity and pre-positioning masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators where they may be needed. EMTs and ambulances are being sent to states to aid transferring patients from overburdened hospitals to facilities where there are open beds. FEMA will underwrite state efforts to expand hospital capacity. A senior administration official touted surge capacity already created in Shreveport, La.; Baltimore; and Fresno, Calif.
FEMA will also once again help with vaccinations as pharmacists such as CVS and Walgreens experience burnout under difficult working conditions and struggle to meet unprecedented demands. Federal vaccinators will be sent to 12 states. A new amendment to policies that implemented a 2005 law (PL 109-148) — which provided flexibilities during pandemics — would allow more pharmacists and pharmacy interns to vaccinate across state lines.
At the same time, Biden is unlikely to discourage holiday gatherings or travel among people who are vaccinated as the administration emphasizes the much larger risk of omicron to unvaccinated Americans.
“We have the tools, more than ever in this pandemic, that there’s no need to lock down our schools and our economy. And you'll hear that from the president tomorrow,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday night.
Many experts stress that beating back omicron will require a collective effort to limit exposures.
“President Biden also can use the bully pulpit of the White House to urge people to ‘not ask what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country’ in this time of crisis,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale University epidemiologist.
“You as a healthy person, as boosted even, will not end up at the hospital, but that does not mean you can’t transmit the virus to grandparents, or at the grocery store to an unvaccinated person,” said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and public health communicator. “We’re entering a phase where those societal risks outweigh the individual risks.”
The speech comes just four days before Christmas, when millions of people will be traveling and gathering indoors.
“It’s fair to say that, in the next two weeks, if you’re walking through the airport, you will be walking through clouds of COVID-19,” said Josh Schiffer, a vaccines and infectious diseases expert with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.