U.S. to send 1,000 military health workers, free masks to fight COVID-19
By Susan Heavey and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Thursday said he will deploy more military health workers to six U.S. states beginning next week, and give Americans free masks and more free tests to tackle the fast-spreading Omicron variant around the country.
The dispatch of 1,000 military health personnel is “part of a major deployment of our nation’s armed forces to help hospitals across the country manage this surge of the Omicron virus,” Biden said.
“I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year,” Biden said, while reiterating his message that COVID-19 continues to be a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a record high this week after steadily increasing since late December, according to a Reuters tally, while Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant variant of the coronavirus. The U.S. will send the health workers, in teams of seven to 25 military doctors, nurses and other personnel, to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island to support at-capacity emergency rooms and free up overwhelmed hospital staff for non-COVID cases, the White House said earlier on Thursday. The White House’s more aggressive stance comes after months of criticism from health experts that the administration was relying too heavily on vaccines alone to stop the spread of the coronavirus, especially given a politically motivated anti-vaccine movement pushed by some Republican officials. About 62% of Americans are considered fully vaccinated, according to U.S. data.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell, who joined Biden during his speech, told CNN earlier “the number one request continues to be staffing,” referring to states asking for federal aid. Other states are likely to need reinforcements of military and other federal doctors and nurses as well, she said.
MORE TESTS AND MASKS
Biden also announced that he will direct the U.S. government to procure an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests to help meet surging demand across the country. The order comes on top of another 500 million tests that the White House pledged would be available to Americans in January.
The president also said the administration next week will announce it will make high quality masks available for free. He noted about a third of Americans report they do not wear a mask.
Biden’s administration has deployed federal surge teams since July to battle COVID-19. In December, Biden directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to ready another 1,000 medical forces and sent more than 100 federal medical personnel to Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Some states’ hospitals are at or near capacity.
New Jersey, for example, had 6,089 COVID patients in hospital on Wednesday. That compares with a state record of 8,270 on April 15, 2020.
About 73% of the hospital beds in the state are filled and 53% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds are occupied. In Rhode Island, 86% of all hospital beds are filled and 90% of ICU beds.
There were 133,871 people hospitalized with COVID in the United States on average over the past week, the tally showed.
The increase has strained health systems and forced several states to postpone elective surgeries.
Omicron not only drives up case loads but also has sidelined staff hit by their own COVID infections or exposures to the virus.
Several states have already declared emergencies to loosen regulations and free up funding to cope with the surge.
To date, 847,664 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States among 63,268,225 reported total cases as the outbreak enters its third year.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting and writing by Nandita Bose and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Heather Timmons, Howard Goller and Bill Berkrot)