As Omicron Surges, Biden to Expand Testing and Warn Unvaccinated

Washington (Reuters) -
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant, in the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington, U.S., December 16, 2021. (REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo)

The Biden administration will open federal COVID-19 testing sites in New York City this week and buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can order online for free, starting in January as it tries to tackle the Omicron variant sweeping the country.

Striking a more dire tone about the risks of remaining unvaccinated, President Joe Biden will lay out the initiatives on Tuesday in a speech that aims to persuade Americans to protect themselves from the fast-spreading variant, a senior administration official said.

The measures include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals.

“We will also note that if you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID,” the official said.

With the holiday travel season already begun, new COVID-19 cases are surging in the United States, prompting local and federal officials to again confront just how far to go to combat the virus. Federal officials said that Omicron now accounts for 73% of all new cases, up from less than 1% at the beginning of the month.

Health officials in Texas said on Monday the state recorded what ABC News reported is believed to be the first known U.S. death related to Omicron.

Facing criticism that testing resources are inadequate, Biden will announce on Tuesday that the federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid tests and make them available to all Americans in January.

Americans can access a new website to have them delivered, but officials are still working on how many tests a household can request. The free tests are in addition to a plan to have health insurers provide free tests for Americans with coverage that is also expected to begin in January.

Biden will note that the Omicron variant is so contagious that it will infect vaccinated Americans but that they will be far less likely to get seriously sick.

So-called breakthrough infections are rising among the 61% of the country’s fully vaccinated population, including the 30% who have gotten booster shots.

Still, Biden will tell Americans that those who are vaccinated and follow guidance around using masks, especially while traveling, should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as planned.

New COVID-19 cases rose 9% in the United States in the past week but are up 57% since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased 26% this month, with hospitals in some areas already strained by the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year.

There have been almost 51 million infections and 809,268 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most of any country.