WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday the government will double to 1 billion the rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests to be distributed free to Americans, along with the most protective N95 masks, as he highlighted his efforts to “surge” resources to help the country weather the spike in coronavirus cases.
Biden also announced that starting next week 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying across the country to help overwhelmed medical facilities ease staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant. Speaking at the White House, he said six additional military medical teams will be deployed, including to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Other teams will go to Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.
Many facilities are struggling because their workers are quarantined at home due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who already have been sent to states to help with acute shortages.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the additional resources at UNM Hospital will “absolutely help” given the hospital is the state’s only top-level trauma facility and often takes in many of the most complicated cases.
“With a Level I trauma, you’ve got to stabilize personnel resources there,” Lujan Grisham said, noting the hospital already has brought in hundreds of traveling nurses to help address the shortage.
New Mexico hospital officials have acknowledged in recent weeks the majority of patients being seen are treated for illnesses and medical emergencies unrelated to COVID-19 but that a lack of staffing continues to put undue pressure on the health care system.
The New Mexico Department of Health said in a news release the 25-member Department of Defense Medium Medical Team is expected to arrive within the next week and will be on-site for 30 days.
This will be the third military medical team to be deployed to New Mexico. Two Navy teams have served at the San Juan Regional Medical Center over the past 45 days.
Dr. David Scrase, the state’s acting health secretary, said in a statement: “We appreciate the willingness and readiness of our federal partners to step in and provide much-needed help and relief to our delivery systems here in New Mexico. Our hospitals have been overfilled since August and we are this week experiencing a new but expected surge in hospitalizations as a result of the Omicron variant.”
Biden insisted COVID-19 remains “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people test positive for the virus, but Biden noted medical figures showing people are far less likely to suffer serious illness and death if they’ve received a shot: “What happens after that could not be more different.”
Biden’s comments come as his administration’s focus is shifting to easing disruptions from the spike in cases that is also contributing to grocery shortages and flight cancellations, rather than preventing the transmission of the virus.
On Tuesday, Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, told Congress the highly transmissible strain will infect “most people” and that the focus should turn to ensuring critical services can continue uninterrupted.
“I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID, all right?” she said. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function — transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”
Biden said he is directing his team to double its procurement of rapid COVID-19 tests to be delivered for free to Americans through a forthcoming federal website, as he seeks to respond to criticism over shortages and long lines for tests.
The initial order was for 500 million tests, and now the federal government will purchase 1 billion at-home testing kits.
The initial batch of test kits will be available starting next week, Biden said, when the administration launches a new website where Americans can request the free tests. The rest of the tests will be delivered over the coming months.
Biden also announced that for the first time his administration was planning to make “high-quality” N95 masks, which are most effective at preventing transmission of the virus, available for free. He said his administration would announce details next week.
The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said this week. And though research has shown those masks to be better protection, they are often more uncomfortable, and health officials are not altering their guidance to recommend against less-protective cloth masks.
The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.
Biden encouraged Americans to wear masks when indoors to slow the spread of the virus, even as he acknowledged they’re a “pain in the neck”
They were hearing about the work of the more than 800 military personnel who have been helping civilian hospitals since Thanksgiving and the more than 15,000 National Guard members whose work supporting vaccinations, testing and caring for patients is being covered by the federal government.
The White House said they spoke with federal personnel who are already on the ground in Arizona, Michigan and New York to hear about their experiences.
Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that as of Thursday, there are 15,200 Guard members around the country supporting COVID-19 missions.
Guard leaders from Ohio, New York and Colorado told reporters Thursday they are using only vaccinated troops for missions that directly interact with the public, including at testing sites and in patient care at hospitals.
The White House said in addition to UNM Hospital, the teams will support Henry Ford Hospital outside Detroit, University Hospital in Newark, Coney Island Hospital in New York City, the Cleveland Clinic and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
The deployment by the Department of Defense will join another team sent by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Bob Riney, chief operating officer for Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System. He said the phases of the operations would come together “in a highly coordinated way.”
“They’re not overlapping. They’re complementary,” he told reporters Thursday.
The first team of medical personnel arrived Sunday and went through an orientation before helping patients Monday. They are providing care for up to 24 beds and supporting staff at Henry Ford Wyandotte with in-patient care and surgeries, Riney said.
The first phase is through Jan. 21 and the second team will come for an additional 30 days. “We are looking at 45 days of total support and that has a much more meaningful impact,” he said.
“We welcome and are grateful for any support that we have,” said Riney, who told reporters the federal government chose to address needs at the Wyandotte hospital after the health system submitted its current situation and data to Health and Human Services.
A spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic said the hospital system is “receiving federal support from a team of approximately 20 military medical professionals.”
Spokesperson Andrea Pacetti said they likely will begin working next week at the clinic’s main campus in Cleveland. CEO and President Dr. Tom Mihaljevic in a statement on Thursday said: “We are grateful for the federal support as we continue to face a challenging COVID-19 surge in our Ohio hospitals. The addition of military medical personnel allows us to care for more patients in our community.”
The New Mexican contributed to this report.