Biden buys 500 million COVID-19 test kits to tackle Omicron surge

Washington – United States President Joe Biden’s administration is to make 500 million rapid tests for COVID-19 available free, amid new measures to tackle the surging Omicron variant.

Biden will address the nation later, telling people to protect themselves as the holiday season gets under way.

There will be more vaccines and more support for hospitals, but no need for a lockdown, a senior official said.

Omicron has become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases.

It was first identified in southern Africa last month but has now spread around the globe.

Although 73 per cent of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the administration remains concerned about those who have not had jabs.

The senior official said: “If you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalised and 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19.”

The White House said the measures Biden was announcing would “mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our health care system”.

The announcement came as US media reported the death from Omicron of an unvaccinated man in Texas.

The 50-year-old from Harris County is believed to be the first known recorded fatality from the variant in the US.

The key measures will be:

500 million at-home rapid tests (antigen/flow) will be bought and delivered free to all Americans who request them from January. Kits can currently cost $7 to $15 (£5 to £11) over-the-counter and availability can be sketchy in some areas
1 000 military medical personnel will be deployed to hospitals nationwide over the next two months, five times the current amount.
The launch of new federal testing sites nationwide, with the first in New York City – which has seen a massive surge in Omicron – by Christmas.
Expanded hospital capacity and distribution of critical supplies.

Biden will say in his address later that even vaccinated Americans are going to be infected by the new variant, but that they will become far less sick than the unvaccinated.

He will stress the need for mask wearing, particularly when travelling, and caution while celebrating.

Omicron has created concern in a number of US cities, with people in New York, Washington and elsewhere queuing up for tests ahead of meeting up with family members.

And in New York, where cases rose 60 per cent in the week ending on Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a $100 (£76) reward to anyone who got a booster jab between now and the end of December.

COVID-19 cases in the US nationally are up 57 per cent since the start of this month, Reuters reports.

But the Biden administration insists it has “the tools to get through this wave”, the official quoted earlier said, adding: “There is no need to lock down our schools, nor our economy.”

The purchase of 500 million tests contrasts with a comment by White House press secretary Jen Psaki just two weeks ago.

She asked: “Should we just send one to every American? Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?” (BBC)

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