Biden pledges tests, federal aid and vaccines amid Omicron winter surge

US president said 'we'll get through this' in announcement of major changes to winter plan for combating virus

Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron

US President Joe Biden addressed the country on Tuesday afternoon about his administration's response to the spike in coronavirus cases, fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“While Covid has been a tough adversary, we’ve shown we are tougher,” Mr Biden said from the White House.

He announced federal support for struggling hospitals and emergency free testing sites, while calling on people to be vaccinated and receive their booster shots.

Americans are demanding answers to barriers in testing access during the holiday travel season, and Mr Biden seemed to go on the defensive, implying his original winter Covid-19 action plan had been derailed by the new variant.

The president also announced the US had ordered 500 million free at-home Covid-19 tests but that they will not be available until sometime in January, although emergency testing sites will be set up in the meantime.

“If you are vaccinated, you should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as you planned it,” Mr Biden said.

Starting in January, Americans will be able to order at-home rapid Covid-19 tests from a new website and the tests will be sent via US mail free of charge, the White House said.

This will mark the first time the US will send free at-home tests to Americans after more than a year of pressure from public health experts. However, the tests will not arrive in time to meet the demand during the current surge.

The Biden administration had been criticised for its earlier “buy first, get paid later” approach to testing, and this will still be available at the start of 2022.

But Mr Biden’s testing surge will fall far short of the levels needed for all Americans to test at the recommended rate of twice weekly. The US would need 2.3 billion tests per month for everyone 12 and older to do that, the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation reported.

Mr Biden announced that about 1,000 US soldiers are prepared to support hospitals under strain from the latest coronavirus surge.

The White House said it is already expediting the distribution of ventilators and will distribute additional protective equipment from the national stockpile, if needed.

The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that vaccinations remain the best defence against the virus. To that end, the government will set up pop-up vaccination clinics across the US and make it easier for pharmacists to cross state lines to administer vaccines.

“If you're not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” he said.

He also told unvaccinated people that they should be immunised, calling the move a “patriotic duty".

The president himself came in close contact with a staffer who tested positive for Covid-19, the White House said on Monday. Mr Biden tested negative with an antigen and a PCR test and will be tested again on Wednesday.

“There'll be positive cases in every office,” Mr Biden said. “Even here in the White House.”

On Capitol Hill, Democratic members of Congress Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Jason Crow all announced that they had tested positive for coronavirus.

The US president said that, despite the rumours, there will be no further shutdown due to the rise in cases.

“We're making sure Covid-19 no longer closes businesses or schools,” Mr Biden said.

Several businesses across a number of industries have announced the decision to close offices and workplaces due to rising infections among employees while some schools are returning to online learning for the same reason.

But “this is not March 2020", Mr Biden said. “Two hundred million people [in the US] are fully vaccinated.”

About 61 per cent of the US population has been fully vaccinated with at least two doses, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported, while under 30 per cent have received a booster dose — the maximum advised protection against the Omicron variant.

Though the president added “we aren't as vaccinated as a country we should be".

Meanwhile, the CDC added another eight countries — including Spain — to its highest travel risk level due to Covid-19.

In a sign of how fast Omicron is spreading in the country, the CDC announced on Monday that the variant accounted for 73 per cent of new infections last week. Data from the CDC show that as recently as November, more than 99.5 per cent of coronavirus cases were caused by the Delta variant.

Omicron, now detected in dozens of countries, is seemingly more infectious and more resistant to vaccines than previous variants. A Texas county on Monday reported its first death from the Omicron variant, a man who was unvaccinated, the county's health department reported.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: December 21st 2021, 10:35 PM