Jan. 13, 2022 -- President Joe Biden announced Thursday the U.S. government will make free, upgraded face masks available for ordering online starting next week.
In addition, he is ordering 500 million more rapid COVID-19 tests to meet future demand and deploying more military teams to help overwhelmed hospitals in hardest-hit states.
These actions are part of a “whole-of-government” response to the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations associated with the Omicron variant.
Biden's plan aims to make getting upgraded masks easier for Americans.
"I've taken every action I can as president to require people to wear masks in federal buildings and on airplanes and trains," the president said. However, "I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get."
With that in mind, next week, the White House will announce how people can order high-quality masks, including N95s, online, for free, on a new website.
Biden estimated that about one-third of Americans say they never wear a mask, a statistic he's hoping to change.
The president also acknowledged the pandemic fatigue many people have.
"We all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks, I get it,” he said. "But they are a really important tool to stop the spread, especially [of] the highly transmittable Omicron variant."
One Billion Tests
In the 10-minute address, Biden also announced plans to order 500 million more at-home rapid COVID-19 tests to meet demand. The order comes on top of the 500 million tests the government already ordered.
Doing the math, the president noted the current and future supply means there will be a billion tests "being acquired to ship to your homes for free."
Biden also pointed out that rapid at-home tests were not available when he took office. In contrast, "we'll have over 375 million at-home rapid tests in January alone. That's a huge leap," he said.
In the meantime, his administration will work with online retailers to make more tests available. Also, for any American who wants a test right away, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is adding more free, in-person testing sites nationwide.
More Military Backup
"I'm announcing our next deployment of six additional federal medical teams," Biden said. These reinforcements include more than 120 military medical personnel being sent to hard-hit states, including Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island.
These military personnel will join other teams already in action.
Since Thanksgiving, over 800 military and other federal emergency personnel have been deployed to 24 states, tribes, and territories, Biden noted. The numbers included more than 350 military doctors, nurses, and medics to help overwhelmed hospital staff. In addition, more than 14,000 National Guard members are already deployed to help health care workers are in 49 states.
Vaccination Remains Top Priority
Getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted remains a priority, particularly during the Omicron surge.
"Right now, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive. But what happens after that could not be more different," Biden said. "If vaccinated people test positive, they're overwhelmingly have either no symptoms at all or they have mild symptoms."
In contrast, when an unvaccinated person tests positive, they are more than 17 times more likely to get hospitalized, he said.
"As long as we have tens of millions of people who will not get vaccinated, we're going to have full hospitals and needless deaths. They're crowding the hospitals, leaving little room for anyone else who might have a heart attack, car accident, or any injury at all," Biden said.
One bright spot so far with the Omicron surge is, despite the jump in case and hospitalization numbers, he said, "deaths are down dramatically from last winter."
Uniting Against a Common Enemy
Biden said America will "get through this when everybody does their part, no matter where you live, no matter your political party."
Further acknowledging the political divide influencing COVID-19 response and numbers, he said: "We've got a fight this together. We've got to work together. Not against each other."