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Biden to send millions of free COVID-19 tests, dispatch military to hospitals as experts worry about time already lost

Health experts differ on whether enough has been done, or whether Omicron has simply moved too fast

President Joe Biden.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Hoping to stem what experts are warning will be a “viral blizzard” this winter as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 grips the nation, President Biden on Tuesday announced plans to deploy military troops to hospitals, create new federal testing sites, add vaccination capacity, and send 500 million rapid tests for free to people’s homes.

“This is the critical moment,” said Biden, speaking in front of red and gold Christmas decorations, declaring that the country has “more tools than we’ve ever had before. We’re ready. We’ll get through this.”

The new steps come as COVID cases surge across the country, with the highly transmissible variant accounting for 73 percent of new cases nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at least one death. They represent a ramping up of the wintertime strategy the administration rolled out earlier this month, but public health experts warn that the United States is already lagging behind in testing and other aspects of its pandemic-fighting infrastructure.

During his speech, Biden acknowledged the nation needs to expand its testing capacity, though he rejected suggestions his administration had failed to prepare for Omicron’s spread. Millions of Americans have struggled in recent days to find tests for the holidays ― underscoring how much work the government has left to do.

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“I don’t think anyone anticipated this was going to as rapidly spread as it did,” he told reporters. “Everyone rushed to the counter.”

Certain components of the plan — including the delivery of free home tests to people who want them — will not be available until January, well after a holiday season that is all but certain to exacerbate the explosion of cases. And it comes at a time when health care providers are stretched thin, testing sites are choked with long lines, and, experts say, there is not a second to lose.

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Some public health experts say the administration has made a series of missteps in the run-up to the announcement, showing a lack of urgency and foresight about a virus that has been spreading — and mutating — for almost two years.

“There’s so many things that could be done here that are not getting done,” said Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in California, in an interview on Monday. He added, “Everything’s been reactive.”

Earlier this year, he said, the administration bungled the rollout of booster vaccines, with conflicting messaging and interagency disagreements over eligibility that slowed the uptake of a tool that protects people from the worst effects of Omicron. So far, only about 30 percent of fully vaccinated adults also have received a booster, according to CDC data.

The nation’s apparatus to collect data on COVID cases — including detailed information about breakthrough cases — is still patchy, slow, and incomplete, Topol said.

And there is broad consternation over the country’s failure to make high-quality masks and COVID testing, particularly home testing, free and widely available, even though government officials have several tools at their disposal to nudge manufacturers, boost supply, and negotiate for lower prices.

“I think Biden’s administration — especially in the spring and summer — totally underemphasized the need for testing and did not stockpile the level of tests we needed to stockpile,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “The worst that could have happened was we didn’t need it. The much worse alternative, which is what we are going through, is we need it right now.”

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According to details of the plan distributed by the White House, the first of the new testing sites will be set up in New York City this week, and the Defense Production Act will be used to accelerate production of tests. The government will create new pop-up vaccination sites and deploy more people to give the shots.

The plan includes several measures to expand hospital capacity and will deploy federal medical personnel to six states, including New Hampshire and Vermont.

Some public health experts cast the steps as an appropriate response to a variant that has spread with astonishing speed, although they acknowledged it may not be enough.

“You can always say it should have been sooner and faster. I think Omicron has really thrown a curveball,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of health and human rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “Whether it will really be enough will depend on the severity of Omicron.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said he believes that the White House is taking the pandemic’s new surge seriously, but that the next weeks will be critical.

“The key message that we need to address right up front is, what are we going to do in the next three to eight weeks? That is likely the time when we’re going to have what I call the viral blizzard, with Omicron hitting this country,” Osterholm said.

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The lack of new restrictions marks a contrast with last year, before vaccines were widely available, when federal health officials explicitly discouraged people from spending the holidays with others outside their immediate families, and mask mandates and indoor capacity limits were in place across swaths of the country.

The new plan focuses tightly on stepped-up government action, rather than new guidelines, mandates, or restrictions imposed on individuals or businesses. In his speech Tuesday, Biden made it clear that he has no intention of ruining Americans’ holiday plans.

“If you and those you celebrate with are vaccinated, particularly if you’ve gotten your booster shot, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you’ve planned,” he said.

By contrast, European countries such as the Netherlands already have locked down in response to Omicron, and others including the United Kingdom are considering new restrictions. And the leader of the World Health Organization said this week that some holiday plans would have to be canceled, which may leave some Americans confused about the right thing to do.

“We as a population, as a country, have a very, very difficult winter ahead of us,” said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “The Europeans are getting more aggressive about lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. They’re much more assertive about vaccine mandates than we are.”

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Still, he said, “If you urge what’s unrealistic, then you lose the population.”

State leaders around the country have shown discomfort with mandates and lockdowns, even those who embraced them last year, showing how the politics of COVID response has shifted over the last 19 months. In Massachusetts, Republican Governor Charlie Baker issued a new statewide mask advisory Tuesday that falls short of the compulsory mandate he issued last year, to the frustration of some Democrats.

Some public health experts said new restrictions would land with a thud in a nation where people and public officials alike are tired of — if not outright hostile to — the ways their lives have been upended.

“People are just tired of having things loosened up a little bit only to turn around a few months later and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do these things, you have to go get tested, you have to put your masks back on,’ ” said David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University and an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center.

“I think that that may be causing state and national authorities to move a little more slowly,” he added, “to say, ‘Do we do this again and risk unhappy citizens?’”

But others still call on the administration to do much more.

“They should say no one is allowed on a plane in the United States . . . without being triple vaccinated,” Topol said. “They could also say you don’t board a plane without a rapid test at the gate.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at elizabeth.koh@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.