WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to buy 500 million additional Covid tests, is working to make free masks more widely available, and will deploy more federal medical teams to hospitals in six states to help with debilitating staffing shortages amid a surge in hospitalizations.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the additional tests will be needed to meet future demand and comes on top of the 500 million rapid at-home tests the U.S. is in the process of acquiring to ship to Americans for free. A website to request one of those free at-home tests will be up next week, he said.
Along with the additional tests, Biden said next week he will announce a way to make “high quality masks” available for free. Public health officials have been urging the administration to do more to encourage Americans to wear high-filtration N95 masks, which could significantly reduce the transmission of the highly contagious omicron variant.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks, I get it,” Biden said. “But they are clearly a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable omicron version. So please, please wear the mask.”
Biden said the federal government is also sending additional military personnel to hospitals. Along with the Cleveland Clinic, the teams will be going to Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, New York; Rhode Island Hospital in Providence; Henry Ford Hospital just outside Detroit’ University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque; and University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, according to a White House official.
“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,” a White House official said in a statement. “They will be working alongside health care workers on the front lines to give them the support they need.”
The efforts come as the country is seeing an unprecedented rise in infections that risks overwhelming the nation’s already stretched hospitals, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday. While data suggests people are less likely to get severely ill from the highly contagious omicron, especially if they are vaccinated, Walensky said the sheer number of cases is driving up hospitalizations, which rose 33 percent in the last week.
Covid-19 hospitalizations have doubled in 15 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., over the past two weeks, contributing to a national record for pandemic hospitalizations, according to an NBC News analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data. The U.S. set a record for single-day Covid hospitalizations on Sunday, when more than 142,000 hospitalizations were reported.
At the Cleveland Clinic, staffing shortage and a surge of omicron cases are straining the system with patients younger and sicker than a year ago and a staff that is exhausted after nearly two years of battling the pandemic, hospital officials told NBC News. With about 5 percent of hospital staff out sick with Covid infections, the state recently had to send in the National Guard to do everything from run testing centers to deliver meals.
Biden is expected to make the announcement in remarks Thursday after being briefed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Covid response team on the status of the pandemic and his administration’s response.
The Defense Department will begin deploying the first of 1,000 military medical personnel to hospitals and over 800 military and federal emergency personnel have been sent to 24 states in addition to 14,000 National Guard members who have been activated, being paid for by the Covid relief bill passed last spring.
But Biden said the most important thing Americans need to do is get vaccinated.
“As long as we have tens of millions of people who will not get vaccinated, we’re going to have full hospitals and needless deaths,” Biden said. “So the single most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated.”
Shannon Pettypiece is the senior White House reporter for NBCNews.com.
Kelly O’Donnell is a White House correspondent for NBC News.