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Biden steps up pandemic response with help for hospitals and expanded testing


People wait in line for COVID testing at Boston Logan International Airport in Boston on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

By The New York Times


Facing an alarming surge in coronavirus cases that threatens to overwhelm the nation’s hospital system, President Joe Biden stepped up his administration’s pandemic response again 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, 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.


But first, Biden took on the role of comforter-in-chief, reminding Americans that, despite the highly infectious new omicron variant, the situation 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,” Biden declared. “Two hundred million people are vaccinated. We’re prepared; we know more.”


Biden ran for office 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 spreading with stunning speed, as well as a divisive political climate in which many Americans, particularly supporters of former President Donald Trump, have refused to get vaccinated.


In his remarks, Biden noted that 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.”


He criticized 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.”


While 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 omicron variant from spreading and that the administration must focus on slowing it, 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,” said Lu Borio, a former acting chief scientist for the Food and Drug Administration.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that omicron, which was causing less than 1% 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 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.


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.


“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.”


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.


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.


As much as trying to address the practical problems facing the nation, 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.”

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