- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2022

President Biden said Thursday he will procure an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests for free shipment to U.S. homes, doubling the government’s purchase to 1 billion tests as he tries to meet surging demand for diagnostics.

Mr. Biden said he‘s also giving Americans high-quality masks for free in the coming days. And he will start deploying the first of 1,000 military medical personnel to overtaxed hospitals in six states as the U.S. tries to move beyond a crushing omicron wave.

“Vaccinations are obviously the most important thing we are doing but they are not the only important thing,” Mr. Biden said. “Please wear a mask. I think it’s part of your patriotic duty. It’s not that comfortable. It’s a pain in the neck.”

The president outlined his strategy to a pandemic-weary public as hospitals confront an omicron variant that appears to cause less severe disease but is spreading swiftly.

The military deployment will help triage patients at hospitals in Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island as the country sees more than 780,000 infections per day and hospitalizations reach an all-time peak.

The deployment adds to the 800 federal personnel, including 350 military doctors and nurses, who were sent to two dozen states after omicron was detected around Thanksgiving. More than 14,000 National Guard members are assisting the response in 49 states.

On testing, Mr. Biden said a promised website where people can order free COVID-19 tests will launch next week. He said the government is acquiring 500 million more tests on top of the 500 million he announced weeks ago.

“A billion tests in total to meet future demand,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden renewed his appeal for vaccination, pointing to a lower death rate than the peak last year. About 63% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated but tens of millions remain on the sidelines. The president said they are crowding hospitals and making it difficult to treat patients for other things.

“I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year. Omicron variant is causing millions of cases and record hospitalizations,” Mr. Biden said. “Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive but what happens after that could not be more different.”

Mr. Biden said well-fitting masks remain an important tool to control the spread and that he will announce steps by next week on how to get a high-quality mask for free.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin and Deanne Criswell, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, joined Mr. Biden at the White House as he provided yet another update on the pandemic that is dragging down his presidency.

Administration officials say they are deploying every tool in their arsenal, including booster shots and groundbreaking antiviral drugs, to stem the winter wave, though hospitals are feeling the strain.

Mr. Biden recently tapped Tom Inglesby, an infectious diseases expert at Johns Hopkins University, to serve as his testing coordinator amid complaints that schools and everyday Americans cannot find enough COVID-19 tests.

The president addressed the problems omicron poses hours before the Supreme Court put his COVID-19 mandate for large companies on hold Thursday, putting a dent in his plan to prod workers into getting the shots.

Unvaccinated workers were supposed to be tested weekly under the emergency temporary standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, though the court said Mr. Biden went beyond the powers Congress delegated to the executive branch.

Given the ruling, the White House encouraged businesses to set up vaccine requirements on their own, saying corporations that imposed mandates dramatically increased uptake among the workforce.

Also Thursday, the Senate Health Committee voted, 13-8, to advance Mr. Biden‘s pick to lead the Food and Drug Administration, Robert Califf, to the full chamber.

If confirmed, Dr. Califf, who led the FDA for a year under President Obama, will take charge of an agency at the center of efforts to approve critical tools in the COVID-19 effort.

Some Democrats are opposing the nomination, citing his pharmaceutical industry ties and the ongoing opioid epidemic, though others say he will hit the ground running.

“As our nation continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientists and experts at the Food and Drug Administration who are working diligently to ensure we have safe and effective vaccines, tests, treatments, and more, deserve a strong leader who will make sure science always comes first,” said Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the committee. “As a former FDA commissioner, Dr. Califf is an experienced pick to lead this important agency, and today the committee advanced his nomination in a bipartisan manner.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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