Last night, with the number of new COVID cases surging across the US, the CDC revealed that the number of new COVID cases caused by the omicron variant has already grown to 73% during the last week, up from the low teens a week ago, and less than 1% the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, when evidence of the new variant with some 50 mutations to help it avoid vaccine and natural immunity was first shared with the WHO.
But in the US, at least, one of the most surprising aspects of this new wave is the fact that the states with the highest vaccination rates are seeing the biggest surge in new cases. This includes - but isn't limited to - New York, New Jersey and the six New England states, CT, MA, NH, VT, MA and RI. A few days ago, the RI chapter of the American College of Emergency Medicine warned in a letter to the governor and the top public health official that the hospital system in the state is "currently collapsing". In Maine, and a handful of other more populous states, the National Guard has been called in to help with hospital staffing shortages.
And just last night, the NHL became the first US pro sports league to delay all play across all its teams due to the rising COVID numbers, although game cancellations have afflicted the NFL and NBA.
President Biden is set to address the public Tuesday and lay out his plans to respond to the latest COVID "emergency" not with lockdowns and new restrictions, but with plans to get more COVID tests into the hands of the public.
Instead, he will announce a sweeping plan to deploy 1,000 military medical professionals to help at overburdened hospitals, setting up new federal testing sites, deploying hundreds of federal vaccinators and buying 500MM rapid tests to distribute free to the public.
According to the NYT, which published the news promptly at 0500ET, the measures were outlined to reporters Monday night by two senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, likely under the conditions of an embargo - news business jargon for when a story is leaked with the explicit agreement that reporters will wait until a given time to publish.
The 500MM tests that the administration intends to purchase will not be available until January, adding that the federal government intends to create a website where people can request that tests be sent to their homes, free of charge. It was not immediately clear where the tests would come from.
If this sounds like a repeat, or a do-over, of the president's unveiling of his big winter plan to fight the pandemic a few weeks ago, that's largely because it is. Albeit with a different set of more popular (and more costly) measures that doesn't rely so much on the OSHA vaccination mandate that has been held up in the courts.
In addition to the tests, here's a breakdown of the other measures being ordered by Biden (text courtesy of the NYT):
- Biden intends to direct his defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, to “ready an additional 1,000 service members — military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical personnel — to deploy to hospitals during January and February, as needed,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the White House.
- At the same time, Biden will announce that six federal emergency response teams, with more than 100 health professionals and paramedics, will deploy immediately to six states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont. Already, 300 federal medical workers have been deployed since Omicron was discovered in late November.
- Biden will also direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with hospitals across the country to make plans to expand capacity. FEMA will also stand up new pop-up vaccination clinics, the officials said, to handle hundreds of additional vaccinations per week.
- The government is also sending ventilators to the states - last week, officials said, it sent 330 - and will have hundreds of ambulances and emergency medical teams, overseen by FEMA, at the ready "so that if one hospital fills up, they can transport patients to open beds in other facilities," according to the fact sheet. It was not clear who would staff those teams, but the fact sheet said that even now, "30 paramedics are heading to New Hampshire, 30 to Vermont and 20 to Arizona, and 30 ambulances are headed to New York and eight to Maine."
Per the NYT, the new Biden plan "has a more urgent tone than the winter pandemic strategy that Mr. Biden announced three weeks ago at the National Institutes of Health, just days after the new variant was discovered in South Africa." At the time, Biden promised that the 150MM Americans with private health insurance would be able to get reimbursed for at-home COVID tests starting in mid-January, and that his administration would improve access to booster shots and impose new testing requirements for international travelers.
Unfortunately for the president, even the NYT is criticizing Biden's last plan for relying too heavily on vaccination as its "central strategy."
But that plan — and Mr. Biden’s broader response to the Omicron variant — has drawn criticism from public health experts, who say the president has focused too heavily on vaccination as his central strategy. Many have called on him to be more aggressive about testing as a means of slowing the variant’s spread — including possibly sending rapid tests to the homes of every American, free of charge.
Yesterday, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that lockdowns are no longer being considered as part of the federal response to the pandemic, and the Administration has stopped short of asking Americans to cancel holiday travel plans, which has elicited another round of warnings from the 'experts'. Some have warned that Biden is facing a "viral blizzard" that could be a major test for his presidency in the coming weeks.
The US also reported its first confirmed omicron related death overnight, identified only as an unvaccinated man in Texas.
But there's one issue the media hasn't really addressed: how come all the most heavily vaccinated states are also the ones seeing the biggest surge in cases and hospitalizations (which, also, have been less severe than the peak of last year's winter surge).