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President Biden will announce Tuesday that he's mobilizing military medical personnel and distributing emergency equipment in preparation for a wave of new infections caused by the Omicron variant, according to a senior administration official.
If hospitals become overwhelmed and face dwindling supplies, the administration can deliver gloves, masks and ventilators, as well as deploy 1,000 doctors, nurses and medics.
"God willing, we will not need all these service men and women," said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the president's plans before they were announced. "But if we do, they're ready, and they're mobilized."
Additional federal assistance would help hospitals expand the number of beds available and quickly transfer patients to other facilities when they become too full.
The preparations are an acknowledgment that the United States' battle with the coronavirus is entering a grim phase, casting a shadow over holiday plans and forcing Americans to brace for a third year of living with a pandemic.
Although there are hopes that widespread vaccinations will make the coming wave less deadly than previous ones, surging caseloads could stretch the exhausted healthcare system past its limit and demoralize a country that had hoped the crisis would be over by now.
Omicron is so contagious that it's expected to cause more breakthrough cases, and it has surpassed the Delta variant as the leading cause of infection faster than expected. Nearly three-fourths of new cases last week were caused by Omicron, according to federal data released Monday.
The administration is scrambling to make more testing available to Americans, and the official said federal testing sites will be set up before Christmas in New York, which is being hit hard by the new variant.
The official also said the federal government would purchase 500 million tests that Americans could order to their homes through a website. However, the system is not expected to be online until January — after people travel and gather for the holidays.
The delay is certain to renew criticism that the administration has been a step behind the evolving pandemic, and Biden has seen his poll numbers drop in recent months, a sharp reversal from the widespread support he received for his handling of the coronavirus earlier this year.
Lindsey Dawson, associate director of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the U.S. is "playing catch-up" on testing, unlike European countries that invested early in making tests widely available for free.
The administration suggested this year that vaccinated people didn't need to be tested even if they came in close contact with infected people, Dawson said, so manufacturers "weren't willing to scale up production when they didn't think there was a market there."
The result, Dawson added, is that the nation is experiencing a shortage of tests as vaccinated people increasingly seek to learn if they have caught a breakthrough infection and might spread the disease to others.
Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic, said the burdensome regulatory process at the Food and Drug Administration has also been an obstacle. Although rapid tests conducted at home aren't considered as accurate as laboratory results, he said, they're an important tool for reducing risk.
“I think in the future we’ve got to strike that balance," he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's top medical advisor, said Monday that more progress on testing is needed.
"It’s spotty. In some places you can easily get a test and in other places you can’t," Fauci said during an event at the National Press Club in Washington.
Public health experts also blame mixed messages about booster shots for the low number of Americans who have received an extra dose. Boosters are considered crucial for protecting against Omicron.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said administration officials originally made boosters "sound like a nice-to-have luxury instead of essential, which is what they actually are.”
"The Biden administration has done a good job of clarifying it, but a lot of the damage has already been done," she said. Although an estimated 1 million booster doses are being administered each day, less than a third of vaccinated Americans have received one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wen said the administration should shift its characterization of boosters to indicate that they're an integral part of becoming fully vaccinated.
Asked on Monday whether the administration regretted its original guidance on boosters, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki deflected the question.
"That was a decision made by our health and medical experts," she said.
Biden's plans do not include a focus on mitigation measures like limiting public gatherings. He opposes closing schools, and his administration has declined to impose vaccination or testing requirements for domestic air travel.
Psaki said the president's speech would not "be about locking the country down."
Asked whether Biden still believes it's possible to end the pandemic, Psaki said, "His objective is to continue to make vaccines available, reduce hospitalizations and deaths around the country."
Biden's vaccination campaign has already been pushed to its limits. A requirement for employees at large companies to get vaccinated or face regular testing is the subject of a convoluted court battle. The president continues struggling to convince holdouts to get their shots even though the country's death toll has exceeded 800,000 people.
Even though the administration insists the country is better prepared for the winter surge, the Omicron variant has unmistakably rattled Washington.
The White House announced Monday that a staff member, who had been vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for the coronavirus after developing symptoms Sunday. The staff member had been in proximity to Biden on Air Force One on Friday, but the president has tested negative for the virus. Psaki said he would be tested again on Wednesday and would continue with his regular schedule.
A string of politicians, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have tested positive despite receiving vaccines and boosters, reporting they are suffering only minor symptoms. The positive tests are a reminder that even vaccinated people can become infected with the coronavirus and get sick from it, though experts say inoculation greatly lowers the risk of hospitalization or death.
An estimated 65% of Americans at least 5 years old are considered fully vaccinated, meaning they've received one dose of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.
Only 30% of people who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose. Among people who are at least 65 years old — those considered to be among the most vulnerable to the virus because of their age — the number stands at 54%.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.