In a speech Tuesday afternoon, President Biden detailed major changes to his COVID-19 winter plan, his hand forced by the arrival of the fast-spreading variant, whose properties are yet not fully understood by scientists.
Scientists don't yet know whether Omicron causes more serious disease, but they believe vaccination should offer strong protections against severe illness and death. The White House provided details on the proposals President Biden will announce in his speech.
A cornerstone of the plan is President Biden's decision for the government to purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests and ship them free to Americans starting in January. People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent to them by U.S. mail at no charge, the White House said.
It marks a major shift for the president, who earlier had called for many Americans to purchase the hard-to-find tests on their own and then seek reimbursement from their health insurance.
The federal government will also establish new testing sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. The first new federally supported testing site will open in New York this week. The new testing sites will add to 20,000 already available.
In another prong to President Biden's amped-up plan, he is prepared to deploy an additional 1,000 troops with medical skills to assist hospitals buckling under the virus surge. Additionally, he is immediately sending federal medical personnel to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. There are also plans to ready additional ventilators and protective equipment from the national stockpile, expanding hospital resources.
The government will set up multiple vaccination sites and provide hundreds of personnel to administer shots. New rules will make it easier for pharmacists to work across state lines to administer a broader range of shots.
For those who are already fully vaccinated, a booster shot has been shown in lab tests to provide strong protection against Omicron. Although reports of breakthrough cases abound, data show that vaccinated people who become infected are much less likely to suffer serious disease leading to hospitalization or death. To the unvaccinated, President Biden plans to deliver a stern admonition that they're risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Monday's press briefing that the Democratic president doesn't plan to impose any lockdowns and will instead be encouraging people to get inoculated — and, if they're eligible, to get their booster shot.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.