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Biden pushes Covid vaccination and testing but says 'we're ready' for holiday surge

"We're prepared today for what's coming," said Biden. "In March of 2020, we were not ready."

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced several new steps the administration is taking to combat the spread of Covid-19 on Tuesday, seeking to reassure Americans that the expected holiday surge won't be a return to the devastating early days of the pandemic.

The federal government plans to set up new testing sites nationwide, in addition to the 20,000 that are already in operation, Biden said Tuesday afternoon. The first one will open in New York City before Christmas.

"We're prepared today for what's coming," he said. "In March of 2020, we were not ready."

Biden also announced that the White House is preparing to ship as many as 500 million at-home test kits and that it will set up a website for people to submit their requests, with delivery beginning in January.

Biden sent a warning to the unvaccinated, emphasizing that unvaccinated people are most likely to face ongoing risk of severe illness and that they are "responsible for their own choices."

"I honest to God believe it's your patriotic duty" to get vaccinated, he said.

Covid-19 hospitalizations are once again ticking upward after a lull in October and early November, with tens of thousands more people filling hospital beds across the country in the last four weeks.

The surge is connected to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has overtaken the delta variant as the dominant strain in the U.S. As of Friday, more than 73 percent of new cases in the country had been caused by the omicron variant, according to data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted Monday.

The increase is particularly noticeable in the Rust Belt and the Southwest. As of last Wednesday, Michigan's population-adjusted rate was the highest in the country, followed by Indiana's, Ohio's and Pennsylvania's.

"We should all be concerned about omicron but not panicked," Biden said. If you're fully vaccinated, and especially if you've got your booster shot, you are highly protected.

"And no, this is not March of 2020," he added. "Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated."

Biden was pressed about the administration's slow ramp-up of testing availability. He disagreed with the characterization, saying, "It didn't take long at all."

He said the omicron variant spread more rapidly than expected.

"I don't think anyone anticipated this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did," he said.

Separately, Biden told reporters that he is hopeful that a deal on his Build Back Better legislation is possible after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key vote, came out against it over the weekend.

"I'm going to get something done," he said.