As Omicron Soars, Biden Announces Hospital Relief, Free Tests

Brenda Goodman

December 21, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus blazing across the United States, President Joe Biden offered reassurance on Tuesday to Americans who have followed public health guidance to get vaccinated and boosted, and delivered a stark warning to those who haven't.

"Because Omicron spreads so easily, we'll see some fully vaccinated people get COVID. Potentially in large numbers," the president said. "These cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness. Vaccinated people who get COVID may get ill, but they're protected from severe illness and death."

But he said the nation was not back to square one with COVID-19.

"This is not March of 2020," he said.

In addition to the warning, Biden outlined a number of plans to help the nation respond to Omicron, including the purchase of 500 million rapid tests for at-home use and military help for stressed hospitals.

Biden said vaccinated people should keep their plans to celebrate the holidays, especially if celebrating with other vaccinated people.

But he cautioned the estimated 40 million eligible Americans who remain unvaccinated.

"Omicron is serious and perhaps deadly business for unvaccinated people," Biden said. "Some of you will get very sick."

He said hospitals would continue to be dangerously stressed, both in terms of equipment and staffing.

To help alleviate the staffing shortages, Biden said he had deployed six emergency response teams including clinic personnel and paramedics to six states: Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

He will also send 1000 military doctors and nurses to overwhelmed facilities to ease demands. He is also activating the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Response Coordination Center to help with planning and logistics. He said critical supplies like ventilators, masks, gowns, and gloves would also be made available.

Hospital advocates applauded the help.

"The Biden Administration's announcement today to deploy additional medical personnel to COVID-burdened hospitals and stand-up new mass vaccination sites across the country will help alleviate some of the burden on the nation's already overwhelmed health care workforce," said Gerald Harmon, MD, president of the American Medical Association.

Harmon urged all who are eligible to get vaccinated and boosted to further ease the strain.

"We continue to urge the administration to use all available tools at their disposal and not leave any resources or support on the sidelines," said Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, in a written statement.

Week to week, cases of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant have soared. Estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show Omicron causing roughly 13% of cases in the week ending December 11. By Tuesday, Omicron was causing about 74% of cases.

"I've worked in infectious disease for 30 years. I've NEVER seen anything like the speed of Omicron," former CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, posted on Twitter.

For the original coronavirus, the basic reproductive rate — the average number of people infected as contacts of a single case — was 2.5. For the Delta variant, that number rose to around 7. The basic reproductive rate of Omicron may be as high as 10.

On Tuesday, Biden acknowledged the nation was caught off guard.

"I don't think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did," he said.

He acknowledged that tests and testing services were in short supply.

"All of a sudden it was like everybody rushed to the counter. It was a big, big rush," he said.

He promised more tests would be on the way. He said new testing sites would be opened in areas of high demand like New York City, where people have been waiting in line for hours to get tested.

Biden announced he would continue to use the Defense Production Act to ease the supply crunch for COVID-19 tests, purchasing 500,000 tests that would be sent to Americans for free through a new website, which hasn't yet been launched.

Most of the details of who can get the free tests, and how many they can get at a time, are still being worked out, said Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a briefing before the president's speech.

Public policy experts cheered the announcement.

"The U.S. has been a little bit behind the curve in terms [of] not just getting the tests out, but moving the testing technology along compared to European countries," said Jeffrey Levi, PhD, professor of health management and policy at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, DC.

The 500,000 additional tests that were announced today are an additional step, beyond the promise made in Biden's winter plan to have private insurers cover the costs of at-home tests.

"This feels like a major step forward…It remains to be seen whether that production capacity can be met," Levi said.

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