Facing an alarming surge in coronavirus cases that threatens to overwhelm the nation’s hospital system, President Biden stepped up his administration’s pandemic response again on Tuesday and tried to reassure an anxious nation, telling Americans that “we should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked.”
In a White House address, Mr. Biden directed his defense secretary to get 1,000 military medical professionals ready to help where needed; he announced new vaccination and testing sites; and he said his administration was buying 500 million rapid Covid-19 tests to distribute free to the public beginning in January through a new website.
But first, Mr. Biden took on the role of comforter-in-chief, reminding Americans that, despite the highly infectious new Omicron variant, the situation the country is facing today is far different from when the pandemic began in early 2020, when there were no vaccines or treatments and vital medical equipment was in short supply. He insisted, as he has in the past, that there was no need for lockdowns now.
“This is not March of 2020,” Mr. Biden declared. “Two hundred million people are vaccinated. We’re prepared; we know more.”
The speech comes at a precarious moment for Mr. Biden, who ran on a promise to curb the pandemic, only to be confronted with a shape-shifting virus that is now claiming more than 1,000 American lives every day and once again spreading with stunning speed — and a divisive political climate in which many Americans, particularly supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, have refused to get vaccinated.
In his remarks, Mr. Biden acknowledged the former president, noting that Mr. Trump recently said he had received a booster shot, and that “thanks to the prior administration and the scientific community, America is one of the first countries to get the vaccine.”
But he also decried the “dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media,” and companies and personalities who were “making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters.”
The president’s moves build on a winter pandemic strategy that he announced three weeks ago, and reflect an awareness inside the White House of the growing threat from the Omicron variant.
While Mr. Biden acknowledged that the virus was infecting some vaccinated people, he urged unvaccinated Americans to get their shots, and vaccinated people to get boosters if they are eligible, saying that the unvaccinated have “a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital — or even dying.”
Some infectious disease experts say it is simply not possible now to stop the virus from spreading, and that the administration must focus on slowing the spread, protecting the most vulnerable and preventing already strained hospital systems from being overwhelmed.
“The main goal, really, is to prevent people from losing their health and straining hospitals, delaying cancer care and surgeries for people who need it, delaying health care worker burnout,” Lu Borio, a former acting chief scientist for the Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview. Preventing infection completely, she said, is “not a winnable battle.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that Omicron, which was causing less than 1 percent of new Covid-19 cases in the United States as December began, now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases, a statistic that underscores the urgency of Mr. Biden’s moves. So-called “breakthrough infections” among vaccinated people are increasingly common, though many of those cases involve either mild symptoms or none at all.
As a result, experts say, people will have to rely on tests not just to determine whether they are sick, but also to guide them in their daily activities, like going to work or social gatherings. Matching testing supply with demand has been a challenge for both the Trump and the Biden administrations, and the United States has lagged behind Europe in making at-home tests cheap and readily available.
The 500 million tests that the administration intends to purchase, and the website where Americans will be able to request them, will not be available until sometime in January. Much will depend on precisely when that will be.
“It’s fantastic to publicly and clearly acknowledge the important role of testing, but the success now depends on the speed in which these tests can be distributed, and making a clear and easy process to do so,” said Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University. “Time is of the absolute essence. January is realistic, but is it Jan. 4 or Jan. 24? There’s a big difference there.”
Some said the testing plan was too little, too late. “A start (finally), but billions are needed to help prevent spread,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote on Twitter. Dr. Topol suggested in a separate essay that the president could have moved more aggressively on other fronts, by distributing K95 masks to all households, for example.
Mr. Biden, though, defended himself, insisting in answering questions after his remarks that the scarcity of tests was not a failure of his administration. He also said he is considering reversing the travel restrictions he imposed on eight African nations after the Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa.
It was not immediately clear where the tests would come from, how they would be shipped, or whether there would be limits on the number an individual could order. Officials said the president would continue to invoke the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of tests.
Mr. Biden’s plan for new federal testing sites will debut in New York City, where several new sites will be running before Christmas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will also open new pop-up vaccination clinics, officials said, including four in New Mexico that were to open on Tuesday.
Hospital officials welcomed the plan. Rick Pollack, chief executive of the American Health Association, a nonprofit group for hospitals and health care networks, said in a statement that Mr. Biden’s moves would “help hospitals and their caregivers continue to provide the care their patients and communities depend on.”
As much as trying to address the practical problems facing the nation, Mr. Biden tried to address the nation’s wounded psyche.
“I know you’re tired, really, and I know you’re frustrated,” he said, adding, “We all want this to be over, but we’re still in it.”