WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Thursday directed his administration to double the commitment of free, at-home COVID-19 tests being made available to Americans, increasing the number to a total of 1 billion kits, amid a tidal wave of cases and criticism over shortages. The president is also planning to make high-quality N95 masks available for free.
"Today, I am directing my team to procure an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free," Biden said during remarks on the pandemic. "That will mean a billion tests in total to meet future demand, and we’ll continue to work with retailers and online retailers to increase availability."
The commitment builds on the government’s pledge in December to ship 500 million free COVID-19 tests through the U.S. mail. People will use a new federal website to order the tests, which is being rolled out next week. Biden said the administration expects to have 375 million of the at-home rapid tests this month.
Biden also announced that for the first time, his administration is planning to make N95 masks, which are most effective at preventing transmission of the virus, available for free. He said his administration would announce details next week.
The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said this week. And though research has shown those masks to be better protection, they are often more uncomfortable — and health officials are not altering their guidance to recommend against less-protective cloth masks.
The best mask "is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.
Biden encouraged Americans to wear masks when indoors to slow the spread of the virus, even as he acknowledged they're a "pain in the neck"
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks to the American people about constitutional voting rights on Jan. 11, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Meanwhile, additional military medical teams are being deployed across six states to help mitigate staffing shortages at hospitals. Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in at-home quarantines due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who have already been sent to states to help with acute shortages.
The president said the six additional COVID-19 medical teams are being sent to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island. They’ll support Henry Ford Hospital just outside Detroit, University Hospital in Newark, the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Cleveland Clinic and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
"Like all health care workers, they are heroes and I’m grateful for what they do," Biden said.
Biden repeated his continuous call to get inoculated and to receive a booster shot, saying the "most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated." Nearly 63% of the total U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, and 37% of the population has received a booster shot, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
The U.S. also vowed this week to send 10 million more COVID-19 tests to schools each month in an effort to keep them physically open as it faces criticism over long lines and supply shortages for testing. On Wednesday, the White House announced that it will send 5 million rapid tests and 5 million lab-based PCR tests to K-12 schools, with the first shipments being delivered in late January.
The additional rapid tests are intended to help support screening testing and "test to stay" programs, in which schools use regular rapid testing to keep students, teachers and staff who come in close contact with those who test positive in the classroom, according to a White House statement.
The White House said it is increasing lab capacity to support the additional PCR tests per month for schools to perform individual and pooled testing in classrooms.
Food shoppers across the country have encountered empty shelves due to supply chain issues, increasing COVID-19 infections and related hurdles as well as severe winter weather. Meanwhile, sick airline workers and winter storms have led to thousands of cancelled or delayed flights since the holiday season.
Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told Congress on Tuesday that the highly transmissible omicron strain will infect "most people" and that the focus should turn to ensuring that critical services can continue uninterrupted.
"I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID, all right?" Woodcock said. "What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function — transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens."
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.