U.S. President Joe Biden laid out a new concerted effort Tuesday to combat the surging omicron variant of the coronavirus, dispatching federal health care workers to short-handed hospitals, pre-positioning the national stockpile of medical equipment around the country and offering 500 million free COVID-19 test kits to Americans.
Biden detailed his attack plan in a White House address as the number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is markedly increasing again, with 143,000 recorded on Monday, along with another 1,300 deaths. Nearly three-fourths of the new cases are linked to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
But Biden said that fully vaccinated people, and especially those who have gotten booster shots, can safely celebrate the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays with family and friends.
“We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panicked,” he said.
He warned, however, “If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have reason to be concerned.” Biden said the 40 million unvaccinated people in the United States “have an obligation, quite frankly, a patriotic duty, to your country” to get inoculated.
Moreover, he emphasized, “Your choice [whether to get vaccinated] can be a choice between life and death. Please get vaccinated. It’s the only responsible thing to do.”
But even with the growing omicron threat, he said the United States is not returning to the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, when thousands of businesses and schools were shut down.
“Absolutely no,” Biden said.
He told Americans, “I know you’re tired. I know you’re frustrated. We’ll get through this. There’s no challenge too big for America.”
The government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 204 million Americans, or 61%, are fully vaccinated, up from less than 1% at the beginning of 2021. But only 60.8 million people so far have gotten booster shots that health experts say provide the most protection against the omicron variant.
Biden said about 40 million Americans have not gotten any vaccination shots, many of them objecting to the government’s effort to get more people inoculated, saying it violates their freedom to make their own medical choices.
The president, however, said vaccine mandates he has imposed on government workers and the military, and is hoping to require at large companies with 100 or more employees that could affect 84 million workers, are “not to control your life, but to save your life.”
Among some groups of people, getting vaccinated remains controversial — often, according to surveys, those who voted for former President Donald Trump in his unsuccessful 2020 reelection bid against Biden.
Trump, a coronavirus victim while president, was booed by some supporters at an appearance in the southwestern state of Texas over the weekend when he told them he had gotten a booster shot.
Biden, who also has gotten a booster shot, said it was “one of the few things” he and his predecessor agree on, the need to get a booster shot in the arm.
The White House said the actions Biden announced Tuesday “will mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our health care system, while increasing access to free testing and getting more shots in arms to keep people safe and our schools and economy open.”
Biden said he is mobilizing an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses and other health care workers to send to hospitals that need them in January and February. The White House said emergency medical response teams have been dispatched to six states with a shortage of health care workers.
The U.S. is also expanding hospital bed capacity on an emergency basis ahead of the expected surge of the omicron variant cases, the White House said, while deploying hundreds of ambulances and emergency medical teams to transport patients to open beds.
A White House fact sheet on Biden’s address said the government has hundreds of millions of N-95 face masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of hospital gowns and more than 100,000 ventilators in its strategic national stockpile, “all ready to ship out, if and when states need them.”
It said there are now 20,000 free COVID-19 testing sites across the U.S., and that the government is buying a half-billion at-home, rapid test kits for distribution to Americans who want them, starting next month.
The White House said that in recent months the government had added 10,000 vaccination sites across the country and now has 90,000. It plans to add new pop-up vaccination sites at some scattered spots across the U.S. and said private pharmacies are adding workers to administer more vaccinations.