President Joe Biden on Thursday announced his administration would make “high-quality masks” available to Americans for free, as the US struggles to contain the new surge of the Omicron variant and hospitalizations from Covid-19 reach new highs.
The President also announced his administration would purchase an additional 500 million Covid-19 tests – on top of the 500 million tests he previously announced – and said the website where Americans can go to get the free tests shipped to them will be rolled out next week.
“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 said in remarks from the White House.
He noted that for some Americans, “a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” and that his administration would announce more details about how it will distribute free masks next week.
Some experts have said Americans should be wearing N95 and KN95 masks instead of cloth or surgical masks to avoid the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed its guidance on masking, but earlier this week White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said the Biden administration was “strongly considering” making these higher quality masks more readily available to Americans.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that the agency continues to recommend that “any mask is better than no mask,” and that Americans should wear a “well-fitting mask” to protect themselves and stop the spread of the virus.
The new announcements from the President come as his administration faces growing scrutiny alongside record Covid-19 hospitalizations, testing challenges and messaging frustration.
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.
The President outlined how much better off Americans who have received their vaccination and booster shots are compared to those who have not when they are exposed to the virus.
“Right now, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive, but what happens after that could not be more different,” Biden said.
During his remarks Biden also announced plans to deploy a new wave of medical teams to six states to help hospitals combat Covid-19.
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 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 US 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 January 11, 2021), and about 4.5 times the peak from the Delta-driven surge (166,347 on September 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Wednesday briefing.
This story and its headline have been updated with additional developments.