WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday stepped up his administration’s response to a coronavirus surge driven by the Omicron variant, sending what he said is urgently needed help to overwhelmed hospitals and pledging to provide Americans with free tests and masks as the country enters the pandemic’s third year.
Mr. Biden said he was directing his staff to purchase an additional 500 million tests for distribution to Americans, doubling the government’s previous purchase as his administration scrambles to respond to the highly contagious Omicron.
In addition, the president said he is sending a total of 120 military medical personnel to six states where hospitals have been overrun by cases. And he promised to reveal next week plans to help Americans by providing free, high-quality masks that are better at prevention infection from the virus.
It is unclear when the additional tests will become available. Mr. Biden announced the first batch of 500 million tests just before Christmas, and those will not start being delivered until later this month, according to White House officials.
The president did not say when the new batch of 500 million tests will be manufactured and ready for distribution. But he said the at-home tests — along with more than 20,000 testing sites around the country — will help to meet the surging demand as people try to continue work, school and social life despite the rapid spread of the virus.
“We’re on track to roll out a website next week where you can order free test shipped to your home,” he said, adding that people with medical insurance can also soon get reimbursed for the purchase of up to eight tests a month.
Mr. Biden also did not provide any details about what he said would be a plan to ensure that Americans have access to high-quality masks, such as the KN95 and N95 face coverings.
The announcement about help for hospitals was the beginning of a deployment of 1,000 service members to help doctors and nurses deal with a surge in Omicron cases, Mr. Biden said.
The new teams of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel would begin arriving at hospitals in Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island, the president said. They will help triage patients arriving at hospitals, allowing short-staffed emergency departments to free up space.