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Biden promises 500 million free Covid-19 tests to counter Omicron


With the Omicron variant on the move, President Joe Biden announced 500 million free rapid tests for Americans, increased support for hospitals under pressure, and a redoubled vaccination and scale-up efforts.

In a speech, Mr Biden detailed the major changes to his Covid-19 winter plan, his hand forced by the arrival of the fast-spreading variant, the properties of which are not yet fully understood by scientists.

The world faces a second consecutive holiday season of Covid-19 as families and friends begin to gather. Scientists are not yet sure how severe the illness caused by Omicron can be, but they do know that vaccination should offer strong protections against serious illness and death.

A cornerstone of the plan is Mr Biden’s decision for the government to purchase 500 million rapid coronavirus tests for free shipping to Americans starting in January.

People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent by U.S. mail at no cost, the White House said.

It marks a major change for Mr 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 the initial buy-first approach, later get paid from Mr Biden as onerous, and warned the United States would face another set of problems with testing at a critical time.

Test supporters are pointing fingers at places like the UK and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommend people to test themselves twice a week.

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.”

Still, Mr Biden’s test 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 everyone aged 12 and over to do so, according to the non-rofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s nearly five times 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.

In another part of Mr Biden’s magnified plan, he is ready to deploy 1,000 additional troops with medical skills to help hospitals weather the wave of the virus.

In addition, he immediately dispatched 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.

But vaccination remains the main defense because it can prevent disease in the first place. The government will support 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, booster injections have 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. To the unvaccinated, Biden plans to issue a stern warning that they are risking their lives and those of their loved ones.