Covid Omicron: Biden buys 500m test kits to tackle surge

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

Image source, ReutersImage caption, Queues in Times Square, New York, as people get tested ahead of the holiday season

US President Joe Biden's administration is to make 500 million rapid tests for Covid available free, amid new measures to tackle the surging Omicron variant.

Mr Biden will address the nation later, telling people to protect themselves as the holiday season gets under way.

There will be more vaccines and more support for hospitals, but no need for a lockdown, a senior official said.

Omicron has become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases.

It was first identified in southern Africa last month but has now spread around the globe.

Although 73% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against Covid, the administration remains concerned about those who have not had jabs.

The senior official said: "If you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalised and 14 times more likely to die from Covid."

The White House said the measures Mr Biden was announcing would "mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our health care system".

The key measures will be:

  • 500 million at-home rapid tests (antigen/flow) will be bought and delivered free to all Americans who request them from January. Kits can currently cost $7-$15 (£5-£11) over-the-counter and availability can be sketchy in some areas
  • 1,000 military medical personnel will be deployed to hospitals nationwide over the next two months, five times the current amount
  • The launch of new federal testing sites nationwide, with the first in New York City – which has seen a massive surge in Omicron – by Christmas
  • Expanded hospital capacity and distribution of critical supplies

Mr Biden will say in his address later that even vaccinated Americans are going to be infected by the new variant, but that they will become far less sick than the unvaccinated.

He will stress the need for mask wearing, particularly when travelling, and caution while celebrating.

  • How worrying is the new Covid variant?
  • How do you detect Omicron?
  • Covid map: Where are cases the highest?

Omicron has created concern in a number of US cities, with people in New York, Washington and elsewhere queuing up for tests ahead of meeting up with family members.

Covid-19 cases in the US are up 57% since the start of this month, Reuters reports.

But the Biden administration insists it has "the tools to get through this wave", the official said, adding: "There is no need to lock down our schools, nor our economy."

The purchase of 500 million tests contrasts with a comment by White House press secretary Jen Psaki just two weeks ago.

She asked: "Should we just send one to every American? Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?"

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