Biden showcases his help to New England to fight omicron

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden gave a speech Tuesday afternoon that announced specific support he has deployed in Vermont, New Hampshire and several other states outside New England that are battling an increase in cases of COVID-19 due to the omicron variant.

Biden announced he was immediately dispatching federal medical personnel to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. It is also planned to prepare ventilators and additional protective equipment from the national stock, thus increasing hospital resources.

As a safety net, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will deploy hundreds of ambulances and paramedics so that if a hospital fills up, they can transport patients to open beds in other facilities. Ambulances are already heading to New York and Maine, and paramedics are heading to New Hampshire, Vermont and Arizona.

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President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, November 29, 2021, in Washington.  (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

Intensified rapid testing: another part of Biden’s plan to fight COVID-19

With the omicron variant on the move, President Joe Biden plans to announce 500 million free rapid tests for Americans, increased support for hospitals under pressure, and increased immunization and scale-up efforts.

A cornerstone of the plan is Biden’s decision for the government to buy 500 million rapid coronavirus 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 cost, the White House said.

Compare the curve:New Hampshire COVID Case

Compare the curve:COVID case from Vermont

This marks a major change for Biden, who previously called on many Americans to purchase the hard-to-find tests themselves and then seek reimbursement from their health insurance. For the first time, the US government will send free COVID-19 tests directly to Americans, after more than a year of urging from public health experts.

Experts had criticized Biden’s initial buy-first, later-getting paid approach as onerous, and warned the United States would face another set of problems with testing at a critical time. Test supporters are pointing the finger at countries like the UK and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommend people to test themselves twice a week.

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The federal government will also establish new test sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. The first new federally backed test site will open in New York this week. The new test sites will be added to the 20,000 already available. White House officials said they were working with Google so people can find them by searching for “free COVID test near me.”

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Still, Biden’s testing wave would be well below the levels needed for all Americans to test at the recommended rate of twice a week. The United States would need 2.3 billion tests per month for all ages 12 and up, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s nearly five times more than the half a billion tests Biden will deploy. Currently, the United States can perform about 600 million tests per month, with home testing accounting for about half, according to researchers at Arizona State University.

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COVID vaccines and recalls remain Biden’s priority

Vaccination remains the main defense because it can prevent disease in the first place. The government will set up several vaccination sites and provide hundreds of people to administer the vaccines. New rules will make it easier for pharmacists to work across state borders to administer a wider range of vaccines.

For those who are already fully vaccinated, a booster injection has been shown in laboratory tests to provide strong protection against omicron. Although groundbreaking case reports abound, data shows that vaccinated people who are infected are much less likely to suffer from serious illness resulting in hospitalization or death.

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Biden found himself in the awkward position of alerting the country to the dangers posed by the omicron and reassuring Americans that the vaccines will protect them. White House officials are seeking to get the nation to accept the reality of an endemic virus with much lower stakes for those vaccinated. This has forced a difficult balance to be struck as cases rise and deaths and serious illnesses among the unvaccinated grab the headlines.

There are 40 million eligible but unvaccinated U.S. adults. Efforts to increase immunization rates have struggled to overcome a series of political, social and cultural divisions.

The national and global impact of the omicron variant

Scientists say omicron spreads even more easily than other strains of coronavirus, including delta. It accounted for nearly three-quarters of new infections in the United States last week.

In New York City, nearly 42,600 people across the city tested positive Wednesday through Saturday, compared to less than 35,800 for the entire month of November. The city has never had so many people testing positive in such a short time since testing became widely available.

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

The Dutch government began a strict national lockdown on Sunday to curb the sharp rise in infections, but many EU leaders have opted for something less. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said authorities have decided not to impose further restrictions, at least for now.

France and Germany have banned entry to most British travelers, and the Paris government has banned public concerts and fireworks during New Year’s celebrations.

Stock markets in Asia, Europe and the United States fell on Monday in hopes that infections could weigh on global economic growth and exacerbate global supply chain challenges.

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Associated Press editors Matthew Perrone, Darlene Superville, and Zeke Miller contributed to this report