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Biden to announce plan to mail 500 million free rapid tests to Americans next month

INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden will announce a plan on Tuesday to distribute 500 million free at-home rapid tests to Americans beginning in January as part of an attempt to double down on the spread of a transmissible variant that has hit the U.S. distressingly close to the holidays.

Biden’s new efforts come as the omicron variant became the most dominant COVID strain in the country Monday, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all cases, and just as travel kicks off at nearly pre-pandemic levels for the holiday season.

The free at-home rapid tests will be delivered by mail to Americans who request them, a senior administration official told reporters on Monday night in a preview of the speech, marking a slightly different approach from European countries that chose to send tests to all residents.

Americans will have to request the tests through a website that will launch in January, the official said, and its not yet clear how many tests Americans will be able to request per household.

The move is a significant departure from the White House’s posture just two weeks ago, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the idea of mailing tests to every American as costly and wasteful.

“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki told a reporter on Dec. 6.

“Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?” Psaki said.

But the effort shows the consensus among White House officials on the need to improve the nation’s testing apparatus, which was caught unprepared by the perfect storm of high demand for pre-holiday testing and a surge of omicron cases.

As a result, Americans have faced long lines and empty shelves this week as they attempt to safely gather for the holidays in keeping with CDC guidance, which calls for families to use at-home rapid tests as an extra layer of prevention before gathering.

Dr. Sam Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation and a member of their Pandemic Prevention Institute, said the government could have seen this coming.

“Scientists have been warning about the potential for new variants to come along for a year now or more. And we’ve known about omicron since the day before Thanksgiving. It’s been weeks at this point,” he said.

There will be other actions to get ahead of omicron outlined in Biden’s speech on Tuesday, too, like new federal testing sites around the country — the first several of which will launch in New York City by Christmas — and mobilizing 1,000 military doctors and nurses to overburdened hospitals, the senior administration official said.

The military aid will be five-fold the current deployment and could be a big boost to hospitals that have been running on fumes for two years.

There are currently 175 troops spread over four states, and since August 2021, when a joint military operation across the Army, Navy and Air Force began, about 530 medical military personnel have been deployed to work alongside civilian health care providers.

This will be the second time Biden addresses the nation about the omicron variant in less than a month.

In November, Biden announced a winter COVID plan that included beefing up vaccination and booster clinics to encourage more Americans to get protected and increase testing by getting insurance companies to reimburse the cost of at-home tests.

The 500 million free at-home tests that will be announced on Tuesday will be in addition to getting at-home tests reimbursed, which will go into effect on Jan. 15.

Noticeably missing from the new government efforts will be any attempts to enact further restrictions or lockdowns — which some European countries have opted for as omicron has swept through their populations.

It will not be a speech about “locking the country down,” Psaki said at a press briefing on Monday afternoon.

“This is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we’re going to take to increase access and to increase testing and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals,” Psaki said.

Psaki also said Biden would deliver a “stark warning” for those that choose to remain unvaccinated.

“For those who choose to remain unvaccinated, he’ll issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.

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