President Joe Biden on Thursday announced his administration will purchase an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests and said he will soon detail plans for his administration to make high-quality masks free to Americans.
"I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get, so next week we will announce how we are making high-quality masks available to the American people for free," Biden said in remarks from the White House. "I know we all wish could finally be done with wearing masks, I get it, but they are a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmissible omicron variant."
Biden acknowledged the malaise that the country is feeling during this latest onslaught of COVID-19 cases.
"I know we're all frustrated as we enter this new year — the omicron variant is causing millions of cases and record hospitalizations," he said, before reiterating his belief that the pandemic is primarily affecting the unvaccinated in a plea for people to get their shots.
"Right now, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive, but what happens after that could not be more different."
The 500 million new COVID-19 tests will be purchased to meet future demand and are in addition to the previously announced 500 million tests the White House is in the process of acquiring.
During his remarks Biden also announced plans to deploy a new wave of medical teams to six states to help hospitals combat COVID-19.
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The military medical teams will support the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, Henry Ford Hospital outside Detroit, University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque and University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Biden said.
"We were joking earlier — but we weren't really joking: When you need something done, call in the military," Biden said in remarks from the White House.
The deployments come as the Biden administration faces growing scrutiny alongside record COVID-19 hospitalizations, testing challenges and messaging frustration — issues the GOP has seized on.
The president was joined on Thursday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell for a briefing on the deployment of resources and personnel. The trio will also speak with federal surge teams already deployed to hospitals in Arizona, New York and Michigan.
Biden had announced plans last month to mobilize 1,000 military medical personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals amid the omicron surge. "These are just part of the first wave of deployments," the White House official said of the latest mobilizations. "Teams will continue to be mobilized and deployed where they are needed over the coming weeks to confront omicron."
"These teams will be providing relief, triaging patients, helping to decompress overwhelmed emergency departments, and freeing up health care providers to continue other lifesaving care. They will be working alongside health care workers on the front lines to give them the support they need," a White House official said on Monday night.
More than 151,000 Americans were in the hospital with COVID-19 nationwide on Wednesday, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. And the U.S. averaged more than 747,260 new COVID-19 cases daily over the last week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
That's about three times last winter's peak average (251,987 on Jan. 11, 2021), and about 4.5 times the peak from the Delta-driven surge (166,347 on Sept. 1), according to JHU.
The surge has put considerable stress on hospitals nationwide. And, to combat the massive strain on health care services that comes as more staff members call out sick with the virus, state leaders have enacted emergency procedures to help hospitals cope.
"The sudden and steep rise in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism, and strains on our health care system," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Wednesday briefing.