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Biden announces free tests and defends the White House response as COVID cases surge

President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccinations on Tuesday in the State Dining Room of the White House.
Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccinations on Tuesday in the State Dining Room of the White House.

Updated December 21, 2021 at 4:52 PM ET

President Biden told Americans that he understands "how tired, worried and frustrated you are" about the latest COVID-19 case surge in the U.S. and announced several new steps to deal with the highly contagious omicron variant.

Most notably, the government plans to buy a half-billion at-home COVID test kits and mail them to people who want them, with deliveries beginning in January.

Biden defended his administration's performance in dealing with the fast-spreading variant against criticism the White House had not acted quickly enough. The administration's response, Biden said "was not a failure," and he asserted that "I don't think anybody anticipated it would spread as rapidly as it did."

The president also sought to reassure Americans that despite the latest wave of the virus, the nation is better off than it was last March.

"This is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We're prepared. We know more," he said.

Biden is considering reversing the travel ban on South Africa

Biden also said he was "considering" reversing the travel ban he imposed on South Africa and other southern African nations after the omicron variant began spreading. "I'm going to talk to my team in the next couple days," Biden said.

Responding to a question, Biden said that the administration imposed the ban "to see how much time we had before it hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what was happening in other countries."

Biden said "we're past that now, and so it's something that's being raised with me by the docs and I'll have an answer for that soon."

Biden urged vaccinations and boosters

Biden said that the ability to fight off the omicron variant largely rests on people getting vaccinated and he blasted those spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines on social media and cable TV.

"We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panic," he said.

To those wondering if they can safely celebrate the holidays with family and friends, Biden said, "The answer is yes, you can" — as long as everyone has been vaccinated. And he said those who have not gotten boosters and are eligible should do so. He received the booster, he said, and he pointed to comments by former President Trump that he, too, had been boosted.

"May be one of the few things he and I agree on," Biden said.

Biden did not announce new restrictions on schools or businesses, but he defended his mandate that large employers require workers to get vaccinated or tested, or face dismissal.

Access to free tests, a major new step

Biden also announced new federal testing sites across the country, including some in New York City that will open before Christmas. And in January, the government will also start a website where people can order at-home tests to be delivered for free. This will augment plans announced earlier this month to require private insurance companies to reimburse people for the tests.

Biden will also continue using the Defense Production Act and other powers to make sure the U.S. is producing as many tests as quickly as possible.

These are all steps the administration should have made a while ago, said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, a professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Testing will only become more important as the U.S. continues to power through this surge, Wachter told NPR.

Leticia Lopez is tested for COVID-19 at a pop-up testing and vaccination site outside a swap meet in Los Angeles last week.
Jae C. Hong / AP
Leticia Lopez is tested for COVID-19 at a pop-up testing and vaccination site outside a swap meet in Los Angeles last week.

"It just needs to be freely available in the same way that vaccines have been," he said of COVID-19 tests. "So that part is great. But because they are just starting now, it's going to be a little bit late."

Wachter said it will take some time for the government to gear up production and mail them out.

"Omicron is going to peak by mid-January, so it may miss a fair amount of this surge," he said. "But better late than never. We have no idea how long this surge will last. This surge could go on for a couple of months."

Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine & Grady Health System, calls the move "a step in the right direction," but warns that it falls short.

He also insists that the U.S. needs a nationwide mask mandate.

Like other physicians contacted by NPR, Dr. Leana Wen doesn't think 500 million tests will be enough.

"Half a billion, though impressive-sounding, does not come even close to what's needed," she says.

Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, says the Biden administration needs to provide enough tests "for all American families to be able to test twice a week, every week."

"It needs to become the norm to test before going to school and work, and before families and friends have dinner together," she says.

More aid to boost vaccines and help hospitals

As part of this multipronged effort, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is deploying planning officials to assess needs across the country and preposition supplies like masks, gloves and ventilators.

The president also announced that FEMA is standing up new pop-up vaccination clinics across the country. There are plans so far for a new mobile unit in Washington, D.C., and four new mobile units across New Mexico. FEMA will help set up additional sites in areas of high demand over the coming weeks.

Sgt. Darrin Cushard (left) and Sgt. Dennis McClarity walk with a cart of PPE supplies in St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead, Ky.
Jon Cherry / Getty Images
Getty Images
Sgt. Darrin Cushard (left) and Sgt. Dennis McClarity walk with a cart of PPE supplies in St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead, Ky.

And Biden said the government will beef up support for hospitals seeing high numbers of unvaccinated people who get sick from COVID.

The government will send ambulances and EMS workers to hot spots to help move people to places where there are open beds. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will mobilize 1,000 doctors, nurses, medics and other military medical personnel to deploy to hospitals in January and February.

For Wachter, this number of medical personnel feels like a "drop in the bucket."

"Starting with that number will be fine, but if it turns out to be woefully inaccurate, then everyone will be scrambling," he said. "It's going to be a bit of a free-for-all to figure out how we staff hospitals. If this hits hard, I doubt this will suffice."

The U.S.'s hard-hit areas will get a proper sense of what is needed in terms of additional medical personnel in a week or two, Wachter said.

"It may be that number will need to be 5,000 to 10,000," he said. "The question is whether the number will be there."

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein contributed to this report.

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Roberta Rampton is NPR's White House editor. She joined the Washington Desk in October 2019 after spending more than six years as a White House correspondent for Reuters. Rampton traveled around America and to more than 20 countries covering President Trump, President Obama and their vice presidents, reporting on a broad range of political, economic and foreign policy topics. Earlier in her career, Rampton covered energy and agriculture policy.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.