Half a billion at-home coronavirus tests will be sent free to the American public in an effort to fight the surging Omicron variant, Joe Biden will announce on Tuesday.
The move is part of a renewed White House effort that includes the Pentagon calling up 1,000 troops to deploy to hard-hit hospitals and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) working to expand medical capacity.
As Covid-19 once again rages across America, there is no indication that the president will discourage holiday gatherings, impose vaccine mandates for domestic air travel or seek a new round of lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Monday that Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version in the US, accounting for three in four new infections last week. Biden, who earlier this month unveiled a winter plan to combat the pandemic dogging his political fortunes, has been forced to revise his strategy.
In an address from the White House on Tuesday, he will announce that his administration is buying 500m at-home, rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans who want them, with initial delivery starting next month. A website will enable people to order them to be delivered to their home for free.
The decision follows growing pressure on the White House to make free tests more widely available. At a recent briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki asked sarcastically: “Should we just send one to every American?” Critics pointed out that the UK does just that and wondered why the US could not follow suit.
In a preview call with reporters, a senior administration official said: “The first delivery of these tests from the manufacturers will arrive in January. We’re setting up a free and easy system to get those tests out to Americans, including the website. We’re actively working to finalise those distribution mechanisms and we’ll share more details in the weeks ahead on that.”
A six-fold increase in Omicron’s share of Covid-19 infections in just one week has seen long queues from at testing sites in major cities. Biden will announce new federal testing sites around the country. The first will be created this week in New York, which just reported a record number of new daily cases.
Biden will also unveil additional steps to ensure people can get vaccinated and boosted, including new pop-up vaccination clinics and deploying additional vaccinators. Currently 73% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated.