President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the omicron surge and COVID-19 relief efforts during a speech at the White House on Dec. 21, 2021. (Screenshot)
With COVID-19 cases again on the rise and the new, highly-transmissible omicron variant making up almost three-quarters of cases nationwide, the Biden administration on Tuesday announced a series of relief and mitigation efforts amid the winter surge.
“The alarm bell went off,” President Joe Biden told reporters after a speech at the White House where he announced efforts to increase vaccination and testing sites across the country.
Starting this week, 10,000 new COVID-19 testing sites will open in the United States, Biden said. The federal government also plans to purchase 500 million at-home rapid tests, so individuals can have a free coronavirus testing kit shipped to their home via a forthcoming website starting in January.
A thousand military medical personnel will deploy to hospitals experiencing a surge in COVID-positive patients next month and in February. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will help assess supply needs for resources, including masks, gloves, and ventilators.
The omicron variant, which spreads easier than the delta variant, is now the most dominant strain in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show omicron accounts for 73 percent of total cases nationwide. Pennsylvania first detected the variant on Dec. 3 in Philadelphia. Penn State University also confirmed omicron on its largest campus Monday night.
“We know a lot more today than we did back in March 2020,” Biden said, addressing questions about another national shutdown. “We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panicked. If you’re fully vaccinated, and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected.”
Tuesday’s announcement comes nearly a week after Gov. Tom Wolf asked the federal government to send additional support to hospitals and nursing facilities facing staffing and resource shortages across the state. Wolf asked for Federal Emergency Management Agency “strike teams” for hospitals, nursing facilities, and ambulance services. He also requested 1 million rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests and an increased allocation of monoclonal antibodies for rural areas with higher social vulnerability and lower vaccination rates.
Pennsylvania has reported 1.89 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. With more than 2 million people in the commonwealth fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated individuals, according to state data.
Statewide, hospitals have struggled with capacity as cases continue to rise — urging those eligible to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.
Earlier this month, Geisinger, one of Pennsylvania’s largest health systems, announced it ran out of beds, reporting that health care workers were practicing “waiting room medicine” on patients who waited up to 20 hours for care. After months of warning, Centre County’s only hospital, Mount Nittany Medical Center, turned away ambulances due to increased COVID-19 patients and cautioned possible service cuts. A UPMC spokesperson told the Capital-Star that every facility was operating near capacity.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, shared a handful of statements from health care providers across the state who expressed concern with rising patient volumes and staff burnout.
“We’re really facing a crisis,” Timothy Friel, chair of Lehigh Valley Health Network’s department of medicine, said.
Friel added that the health network is reporting about the same number of COVID-19 patients admitted to the hospital as in December of last year. Of those, nearly 80 percent are unvaccinated, he said.
“It’s not that the vaccines have failed as they’ve been safe and effective. We’ve just not had enough people get vaccinated. It’s been very, very depressing, and we don’t see an end coming,” Friel said. “We are getting closer and closer to the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to the strain all of these things combined are putting our health care system throughout the country.”
Vaccinations and layered mitigation efforts, such as masking and social distancing, continue to be the most effective resources to combat the coronavirus and its variants.
“We all want this to be over, but we’re still in it,” Biden said. “And this is a critical moment.”
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