WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Tuesday sought to reassure Americans about the country’s ability to battle the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, saying it was “prepared” to fight what is now the dominant coronavirus strain in the United States.
In a televised address, Biden formally announced a raft of new measures to combat the winter surge — including shipping half a billion at-home tests — but denied his administration had failed to adequately prepare for the fresh wave of cases.
“We should all be concerned about Omicron but not panicked,” he said from the White House.
“This is not March of 2020,” he continued. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared, we know more. We just have to stay focused.”
Biden stressed the country’s immunization campaign would help prevent severe cases among the 62 percent of the population now fully vaccinated — while scolding the unvaccinated for failing to uphold their “patriotic duty.”
He also urged everyone to get a booster shot in order to increase their level of protection against the highly-mutated Omicron strain.
“Just the other day, former President Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot,” said Biden, calling the gesture “maybe one of the few things he and I agree on.”
Beyond vaccines, the country’s stockpile of medical equipment — including personal protective gear and ventilators — together with greater knowledge about how to tackle the virus without shutting down schools means America was in a far better position as compared with last year, he added.
Biden announced his administration’s plan to combat the surge, including deploying military personnel to hospitals, shipping supplies to hard-hit states and getting new free testing sites up and running.
The federal government will mobilize 1,000 doctors, nurses and military medical personnel to be deployed across the country as needed in January and February.
Washington is already sending additional emergency teams to the states of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont.
One of the most eye-catching steps was the announcement that the government will ship 500 million at-home tests to Americans who seek them.
This would bring the United States more in line with fellow rich countries where the tests are widely available for free or at low cost — but the measure would only begin sometime in January.
– ‘More rapidly than anybody thought’ –
Biden’s administration has come under fire for its failure to be ready for the winter surge, America’s fifth wave.
But getting the virus under control has proved difficult in a country where vaccination and mask-wearing have become divisive political issues, and federal mandates end up in protracted legal battles.
Biden has attempted to impose vaccine mandates on private businesses and federal employees but has resorted in recent weeks to little more than publicly beseeching people to get their shots.
At-home tests are currently in scarce supply across the nation while there are long lines at free testing sites in major cities — reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days.
Biden however said it was impossible to anticipate the rate of Omicron’s spread.
“What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought,” he told a reporter.
Asked about the travel ban that was imposed on several southern African nations soon after the existence of the Omicron variant was first reported, he said: “I’m considering reversing it, and I’m going to talk with my team in the next couple of days.”
The variant seems to have peaked in South Africa’s Gauteng province, its former epicentre, while overall hospitalizations appear to be down compared to the country’s previous Covid waves.