President Biden to outline measures to tackle Omicron surge

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By Josephine Joly  with AP
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron during a visit to the National Institutes of Health on Dec. 2, 2021, in Bethesda.
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron during a visit to the National Institutes of Health on Dec. 2, 2021, in Bethesda.   -  Copyright  Evan Vucci / AP

Faced with the surge of the Omicron variant, the US will distribute 500 million free COVID tests, mobilise military medical personnel if necessary and increase vaccination capacity, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

"We have the tools to deal with this wave," the official said, adding that if Americans "are vaccinated and follow the precautions we know well, especially wearing a mask when they travel, they can celebrate Christmas and the holidays serenely".

President Joe Biden also announced plans to increase support for hospitals, including the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to hospitals in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

There are also plans to send out additional ventilators and equipment from the national stockpile and expand hospital capacity.

The US government will purchase 500 million rapid at-home tests to be delivered for free to the homes of Americans who request them.

It will also establish new testing sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests.

Pop-up vaccination sites will be opened, with hundreds of new people to administer the vaccines and new rules that make it easier for pharmacists to work across state lines.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the Democratic president, expected to deliver a speech later on Tuesday, does not plan to impose any lockdowns and will instead be encouraging people to get inoculated — and, if they are eligible, to get their booster shot.

"This is not a speech about locking the country down, this is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we're going to take to increase access and to increase testing and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals," she said.

Over the weekend, Biden's top medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, also told Americans that Biden will issue "a stark warning of what the winter will look like" for the unvaccinated.

Biden to appeal to 'survival instincts'

Almost 40 million American adults remain unvaccinated, as efforts to increase vaccination rates have struggled to overcome a series of political, social, and cultural divides.

White House officials hope to ease the nation back toward accepting the reality of an endemic virus with far lower stakes for the vaccinated, with Biden expected to appeal to survival instincts.

"Our health experts assess that you are 14 times more likely to die of COVID if you have not been vaccinated versus vaccinated," Psaki said Monday.

Scientists warn that Omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta.

The new variant has already become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of new infections last week (almost 73% of covid infections in the US are now due to Omicron).

Early studies suggest that the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing an omicron infection but that even without the extra dose, vaccination should still largely protect people from serious sickness or death.

In New York City, nearly 42,600 people tested positive from Wednesday through Saturday — compared with fewer than 35,800 in the entire month of November.

The city has never had so many people test positive in such a short period of time since testing became widely available, and there is no clear picture of how many people got the virus during the city's first surge in the spring of 2020.

The latest outbreak reflects the global challenges of stopping the coronavirus pandemic.