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Biden doubles order for Pfizer Covid pills as surge closes schools, businesses

The U.S. hit a million new Covid-19 cases on Monday, according to data compiled by NBC News.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. will double its order for a pill from Pfizer to treat Covid infections so it has enough courses for 20 million people.

Biden said the evidence suggests that those who are vaccinated are less likely to develop severe illness, especially with a booster dose. But he said more work needs to be done to get Americans vaccinated, with the unvaccinated making up the vast majority of recent hospitalizations.

"We're going to see, as you all have been hearing, continued rise in cases," Biden said in remarks at the White House. "Omicron is a very transmissible variant, but much different than anything we've seen before. But you can protect yourself, and you should protect yourself, quite frankly: get vaccinated, get boosted — there's plenty of booster shots — wear a mask while you're in public."

Biden made the remarks ahead of an update from his Covid response team on the latest data on the omicron variant and what resources and personnel are being sent to states to help hospitals running low on beds, supplies, and staffing.

Biden called the Pfizer pill a "game changer" with the "potential to dramatically alter the impact" of the pandemic. But given the complexity involved in making the pill, Pfizer has said it will take months to ramp up supply.

The U.S. hit 1 million new Covid-19 cases on Monday, according to data compiled by NBC News, underscoring the threat of the omicron variant as the third year of the pandemic gets underway. Omicron represents 95 percent of new Covid cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden’s remarks on the pandemic, his first since Dec. 28, come as the omicron variant has forced business and schools to close with cases more than tripling over the past month. While hospitalizations haven’t increased at the same rate, the increase has been enough to leave hospitals across the country struggling to care for the latest surge in patients. Deaths have remained relatively unchanged at around 1,100 a day, though they have been a lagging indicator during past surges.

Biden urged Americans again to get booster shots, which he said are available at 90,000 locations. Public health officials have said people who are vaccinated and boosted are significantly less likely to be hospitalized and die from Covid. The vast majority of those hospitalized and dying have been unvaccinated, doctors have said.

"For God's sake, please take advantage of what's available. Please, you're going to save lives," Biden said. "Maybe yours, maybe your child, please take advantage of what we already have."

The U.S. health care system has been struggling over the past month to respond to the surge in cases with shortages of tests, treatments and staff.

Rapid at-home tests have been in short supply with production not expected to significantly ramp up until February or March based on projections from test makers. Biden has promised to send 500 million free at-home tests to people’s homes, but that effort could take months. Patients have had to wait days for laboratory test results in hardest-hit areas with labs running at capacity.

"On testing, I know that remains frustrating. Believe me, it's frustrating to me. But we're making improvements," Biden said.

Biden said the federal government has been opening up testing centers. He directed Americans to a website where they can find a testing location, and urged people to check with their state and local governments about getting access to free at-home tests.

While Pfizer ramps up production of its Covid pill, the supply of another key treatment, a monoclonal antibody product from GlaxoSmithKline, has also been extremely limited. Some hospitals have stopped giving out monoclonal antibody therapies or have been rationing them for only the most high-risk patients because of the constrained supply.

To help overwhelmed hospitals, the federal government has been deploying federal personnel, Biden said. Total hospitalizations in the U.S. have reached the levels of the summer surge, but below where they were during last winter’s surge, with 62 percent of the population now fully vaccinated.

The military has begun providing support to hospitals in eight states, including New York and New Hampshire. Military medical personnel including nurses, respiratory therapists, and medical doctors will deploy in two teams, one 15-person team to New Hampshire and one 20-person team to New York, to support health care workers there.

“Military medical personnel are just one of the many tools available to the nation to combat COVID-19 and save lives,” said Lt. Gen. John R. Evans Jr., U.S. Army North commander. “Our service members are working tirelessly in support of FEMA, and hand-in-hand with civilian partners, to provide additional support for hospitals facing capacity issues.”