Biden to deliver free tests, military doctors to battle Omicron surge

People standing in line for a Covid-19 test in Times Square in Manhattan, New York City, on Dec 19. PHOTO: REUTERS

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 sweeping the country.

Striking a more dire tone about the risks to the one in four American adults who remain unvaccinated, President Joe Biden will lay out the initiatives in a speech on Tuesday (Dec 21) warning of the risks from the fast-spreading variant, a senior administration official said.

The measures include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals that are already being overwhelmed 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 hospitalised and 14 times more likely to die from Covid," the official said.

With the holiday travel season already begun, new Covid-19 cases are surging in the United States, prompting local and federal officials to again confront just how far to go to combat the virus.

Federal officials said that Omicron now accounts for 73 per cent of all new cases, up from less than 1 per cent at the beginning of the month.

The US is mulling reducing the recommended 10-day quarantine time for people who catch Covid, to help asymptomatic people return to work or school, White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday.

Health officials in Texas said on Monday the state recorded what ABC News reported is believed to be the first known US death related to Omicron.

The highly contagious variant was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong and has raced around the globe and been reported in 89 countries, the World Health Organisation said on Saturday.

In New York, Washington and other US cities over the weekend, lines for Covid-19 tests wrapped around the block as people clamoured to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays with family.

Facing criticism that testing resources are inadequate, Mr Biden will announce on Tuesday that the federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid tests and make them available to all Americans in January.

Americans can access a new website to have them delivered, but officials are still working on how many tests a household can request.

The administration will also open multiple federal testing centres 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 added.

Breakthrough infections rise

Mr Biden's virus response has been criticised 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 US.

The free tests are in addition to a plan to have health insurers provide free tests for Americans with coverage that is also expected to begin in January.

Mr 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 get seriously sick.

So-called breakthrough infections are rising among the 61 per cent of the country's fully vaccinated population, including the 30 per cent who have had booster shots.

Still, Mr Biden will tell Americans that those who are vaccinated and follow guidance around using masks, especially while travelling, should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as planned.

New cases rose 9 per cent in the US in the past week but are up 57 per cent since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally.

The number of hospitalised Covid-19 patients has increased 26 per cent this month, with hospitals in some areas already strained by the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year.

There have been almost 51 million infections and 809,268 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most of any country.

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