WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden acknowledged Thursday that “we’re all frustrated” with the ongoing pandemic as he announced additional federal support to help Americans navigate the omicron wave.
The military is deploying medical personnel to several states to help reinforce strained hospitals, following through on a plan that Biden outlined last month. In addition, Biden said his administration will double its purchase of home coronavirus tests to be distributed through a government website.
Biden said another initiative will be announced next week to make “high-quality masks” available for free. Public health experts have said Americans should be favoring N95 or KN95 masks instead of cloth masks to limit the transmission of the more contagious omicron variant.
Biden acknowledged that vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive for the coronavirus, but he emphasized that Americans who have gotten their shots are far less likely to become seriously ill or die.
“The single most important thing to determining your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated,” he said.
The omicron variant began sweeping across the country before the holidays, and Biden attempted to fortify the nation’s defenses against the latest threat, promising to establish easier access to at-home tests, more vaccination sites and greater support for hospitals.
Despite his efforts, omicron has since surged case counts, strained hospitals and renewed uncertainty about whether school classrooms will remain open.
Though there are indications that omicron causes less severe illness, the country set a record for hospitalizations this week. Many patients who tested positive were initially admitted for other reasons, like injuries or heart attacks, but they still risk infecting medical teams who are already shorthanded.
In California, state officials are going as far as allowing asymptomatic health care workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus to return to work immediately in order to meet demand.
Meanwhile, students across the nation are walking out of classes, or threatening to, as they demand better virus precautions on campuses.
Omicron is the latest strain of the coronavirus to take hold of the country since the pandemic began two years ago. It is even more transmissible than the Delta variant, which tore through the country last year, and it is also more likely to cause breakthrough infections among vaccinated people.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are criticizing the administration’s response to the omicron wave.
“I’m frustrated that we’re still behind on issues that are as important to families as testing and supporting schools,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said during a hearing this week. “That’s not to say we have not made progress, it’s just clear we haven’t made enough.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser, said that “we’re doing the best we possibly can” against what he described as “a very wily virus.”
Although public health experts said the administration has been behind the curve on making testing available, new initiatives are becoming available.
Beginning Saturday, people with private health insurance can get reimbursed for the cost of eight at-home coronavirus tests per month. A new government website is expected to allow Americans to order at-home tests for free by the end of January. The administration secured an initial 50 million tests, and an additional 450 million tests are expected to be available in coming weeks.
Millions more tests are being provided to schools each month to screen for infections and help prevent classroom closures.