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Biden says US 'prepared' to fight omicron variant

December 22, 2021

In televised remarks, the president spoke of new measures to combat the now dominant strain but emphasized Americans "have to stay focused."

US President Joe Biden delivering remarks in the White House State Dining Room in front of an American flag, a Christmas tree and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Biden told Americans the US is 'tougher than COVID' but urged caution over the new omicron variantImage: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden spoke directly to Americans about the threat of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus in a televised address followed by a question and answer session with reporters on Tuesday, telling them that the country was "prepared."

"We should all be concerned about Omicron but not panicked," Biden said at the White House. "This is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We're prepared, we know more. We just have to stay focused."

During the 30-minute event Biden outlined a number of steps his administration intended to take in its attempt to stem the spread of the highly contagious variant.

Trying to convince skeptics

The president urged those Americans who had yet to get a booster shot to do so, also telling those who refuse to get the jab that it was their "patriotic duty" to get it. "It's the only responsible thing to do,'' the president said. "Omicron is serious and potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people.''

Vaccine skepticism — alongside mask rejection — is not uncommon in the US, with political belief often playing a major role.

In an effort to reach politically motivated skeptics Biden said, "Just the other day, former President Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot," saying this issue might be "one of the few things he and I agree on." Trump was loudly booed by supporters when he made the announcement at an event this weekend.

Only 62% of the population is currently fully vaccinated and the US has the highest coronavirus death rates in the world. Now in its fifth wave, omicron has already become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new infections last week.

What new measures is Biden taking to beat omicron?

Biden said the country had increased not only its vaccine stockpiles but also those for medical supplies such as protective equipment and ventilators.

He also announced that the US military would be deployed across the country to assist at hospitals and with delivering supplies, and that 1,000 doctors, nurses and military medical personnel would be dispatched as needed, too.

The administration planned to send federal medical personnel to the states of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont immediately.

According to the president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would deploy hundreds of ambulances and paramedic teams to assist the transportation of patients from full hospitals to those with capacity.

Biden reverses policy, makes free tests available

Unlike several other industrialized countries, the US has not made free coronavirus testing easily available to citizens. On Tuesday, Biden vowed to change that by announcing that the federal government would be shipping free rapid test kits to 500 million US households beginning in January.

The government has set up a new website where citizens can order the tests, which they will receive via the US postal system free of charge. This reverses a previous Biden administration policy that suggested people buy their own tests and then seek reimbursement from health insurers.

Furthermore, the federal government will establish new testing sites and Biden will use the Defense Production Act to assist in the manufacturing of more tests. The first new federal testing site is scheduled to open in New York this week. Currently, the US has 20,000 available test sites and the Biden administration says it is working with tech giant Google to help people easily find them with a search for "free COVID test near me."

Will 500 million tests be enough?

Still, to test citizens 12 and over twice a week, the US would need 2.3 billion tests per month — nearly five times the half-billion tests Biden plans on deploying — according to data published by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

In his remarks, Biden sought to assure Americans that the virus would ultimately be vanquished: "I know you're tired, and I know you're frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we're still in it," he said. "We also have more tools than we had before. We're ready, we'll get through this."

js/msh (AFP, AP)