By Jarrett Renshaw and Ahmed Aboulenein
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will open federal COVID-19 testing sites in New York City this week and buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can order online for free starting in January as it tries to tackle the Omicron variant of the coronavirus sweeping the country.
Striking a more dire tone about the risks to the one-in-four American adults who are not fully vaccinated, President Joe Biden will lay out the initiatives in a speech on Tuesday warning of the risks from the fast-spreading variant https://www.reuters.com/world/us/omicron-fueled-covid-wave-crashes-into-new-york-days-before-christmas-2021-12-20, a senior administration official said.
The measures include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals already being overwhelmed by COVID patients in some areas.
“We will also note that if you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID,” the official said.
Biden’s COVID-19 response has been criticized https://www.reuters.com/world/us/rising-cases-omicron-highlight-holes-bidens-covid-strategy-experts-say-2021-12-20 for focusing on vaccines at the detriment of testing and masking, and for underestimating the impact of the politically motivated anti-vaccine movement in the United States.
The new federal measures will not be fully in place ahead of Christmas on Saturday, leaving many Americans scrambling to find available tests ahead of holiday gatherings and travel – and confused about whether it is safe to press ahead with their plans.
The Omicron variant, first detected last month, is causing infections to double in 1.5 to 3 days, according to the World Health Organization. It is not yet known whether it causes more serious illness than the Delta variant.
Several studies suggest that the original regimen of authorized vaccines do not work well at preventing COVID-19 infection caused by Omicron, although boosters appear to https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/moderna-says-booster-dose-its-covid-19-vaccine-appears-protective-vs-omicron-2021-12-20significantly increase protection in lab tests.
Omicron now accounts for 73% of all new cases, according to the latest U.S. data, up from less than 1% at the beginning of the month. Texas health officials on Monday said the state recorded what is believed to be the first known U.S. death related to Omicron.
The rapid rise of infections is once again disrupting life across the country, canceling events from Broadway shows to professional sports. On Monday, the National Hockey League and its players’ union agreed to postpone all games until after Christmas following Tuesday’s slate of contests.
In New York, Washington and other U.S. cities there were long lines for COVID-19 tests as people clamored to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays with family.
Facing criticism that testing resources are inadequate, Biden will announce on Tuesday that the federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid tests and make them available to all Americans beginning in January via a new website.
In addition, the plan calls for health insurers provide test kits at no cost to individuals with coverage, also expected to begin in January.
The administration will open multiple federal testing centers starting in New York City ahead of Christmas, a senior administration official said.
More federal sites will be opened across the country in areas of high need and when requested by local and state officials, the official said.
Top White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday the government also is mulling reducing the recommended 10-day quarantine time for people who get infected, to help asymptomatic people return to work or school.
BREAKTHROUGH INFECTIONS RISE
Biden will note that the Omicron variant is so contagious that it will infect vaccinated Americans but that they will be far less likely to become seriously ill.
These breakthrough infections are rising among the 61% of the country’s fully vaccinated population, including the 30% who have gotten booster shots.
Still, Biden will tell Americans that those who are vaccinated and follow guidance around using masks, especially while traveling, should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as planned.
New COVID-19 cases rose 19% in the United States in the past week and are up 72% since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally.
Nearly 283,000 new infections were reported on Monday, the most new cases in a single day since Sept. 3, although some states are reporting multiple days of test results.
The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased 27% this month, with hospitals in some areas already strained by the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year.
There have been more than 51 million infections and 810,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the United States since the pandemic began, the most of any country.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Berkrot)