By Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw
U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday the opening of more federal vaccination and testing sites to tackle a surge in Covid-19 cases sparked by the Omicron variant, and said some 500 million at-home rapid tests will be available to Americans for free starting in January.
Biden offered both a warning to the unvaccinated, who he said have “good reason to be concerned,” and reassurance that those who are inoculated can gather for the holidays despite the new variant sweeping the country.
“No this is not March of 2020,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated, we’re prepared, we know more.”
Striking a more dire tone about the risks to the one-in-four American adults who are not fully vaccinated, Biden said those who still have not been vaccinated “have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital or even dying.”
The measures announced on Tuesday include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals already being overwhelmed by COVID patients in some areas.
Biden’s COVID-19 response has been criticized 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.
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.
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 contests, one of which was postponed earlier on Tuesday due an outbreak among the Washington Capitals.
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.
“If I don’t I could take a chance of sending it home to my family, and I’m not trying to do that,” said Ronald Tives as he lined up to get tested in Washington’s Farragut Square on Tuesday.
The rollout of at-home rapid tests adds to Biden’s plan announced earlier this month that called on health insurers to 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, Biden said.
More federal vaccination and testing sites will be opened across the country in areas of high need and when requested by local and state officials.
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.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Berkrot)
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