WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is launching federally run COVID-19 testing sites in New York City and other areas overwhelmed by demand as the Omicron variant causes record numbers of new coronavirus cases.
The feds also are mobilizing 1,000 military members to help overwhelmed hospitals and setting up a website to distribute via mail 500 million free at-home rapid tests.
President Biden will announce the steps in a 2:30 pm speech Tuesday as he seeks to calm mounting panic about the more contagious variant that’s caused many “breakthrough” infections even among people who are vaccinated.
“The president will announce that the federal government will set up new federal testing sites around the country. The first of these will be set up in New York City before Christmas,” a senior administration official told reporters.
“We will actually have several of those — the first several open in New York City before before the Christmas holidays. And we’re going to continue to add sites based on where states and communities have capacity constraints and where the state and local public health officials request our assistance.”
It’s not immediately clear where in New York City the sites will be located.
Since last week New Yorkers have had to stand in line for hours to wait for a free city-provided coronavirus test.
The beleaguered test sites at points turned away people who spent long stretches in line for documentation of a negative test for travel, to attend events, or to get peace of mind before seeing family.
Retailers such as CVS Pharmacy are running out of rapid tests at some locations in response to a surge in demand.
The new federal rapid-test distribution website will be set up in January. The government will make no attempt to track the results, the official said.
Also in January, a previously announced Biden rule will take effect requiring private insurance companies to reimburse policyholders for rapid tests. Another 50 million rapid tests are in the process of being shipped by the federal government to clinics for free distribution.
The military members, meanwhile, will be deployed to hospitals to prevent them from being overwhelmed if nurses and doctors are sickened by Omicron.
“The president is directing [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin to mobilize 1,000 members of our military — these are doctors, nurses, medics and other military medical personnel — to deploy to overburdened hospitals in January and February,” the federal official said.
“God willing, we will not need all of these service men and women. But if we do, they are ready and they are mobilized.”
The Omicron variant is responsible for about three-fourths of all new COVID-19 cases in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday — reflecting a rapid spread after emerging only late last month in southern Africa.
Pfizer said this month that preliminary research indicates that the company’s COVID-19 vaccine works against the Omicron variant, especially after three doses. Pfzier said that three doses give people the approximate level of protection as two doses did against the original coronavirus strain. Two doses of the company’s vaccine were about 95 percent effective against transmission of the original strain.
But even assiduous mask-wearers who received a vaccine “booster” shot — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) — have fallen ill in recent days.
According to CDC data, 85.1 percent of US adults have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, but just 32.4 percent have had a booster shot. More than 77 percent of all US residents ages 5 and up have had one shot.
The US recently crossed 800,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic — about half of them in less than 11 months under President Donald Trump and another 400,000 under Biden during more than 10 months, or approximately the same period of time.