WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has boosted federal support to more than 30 states over the last two weeks by providing ventilators, ambulances and protective equipment in the fight against the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
White House Covid coordinator Jeffrey Zients said the administration's latest efforts to help hospitals that are struggling to cope with a spike in the number of coronavirus patients include deploying 2,100 federal personnel, 1 million gloves, nearly 350,000 face coverings and thousands of ventilators.
President Joe Biden and his administration are seeking new ways to respond to a surge in Covid infections that has once again strained the health care system, which has been battered by nearly two years of the pandemic. Hospitals in almost half the states are under high stress, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Cases have increased 60 percent over the past week to an average of 240,400 cases a day though Covid related hospital admissions have increased at a slower pace of about 14 percent over the previous week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.
"In a few short weeks omicron has rapidly increased across the country and we expect it will continue to circulate in the coming weeks," Walensky said.
White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci said early data appear to indicate that infection with the omicron variant is less likely to lead to hospitalizations than the delta variant, citing studies from South Africa and the U.K and a greater rise in cases compared to hospitalizations in the U.S. But the increased transmissibility could still lead to a significant rise in hospitalizations.
"We should not become complacent since our hospital system could still be stressed in certain areas of the country," Fauci said.
While the virus appears to be able to evade immune protection from the vaccine, particularly against infection, data continues to show that boosters offer a level of protection similar to seen with delta, Fauci said. Zients said about one million people a day are getting their booster dose and two in three eligible seniors have now been boosted.
The White House said that along with federal workers, an additional 13,000 National Guard members, whose services will be paid for by the federal government, are active in 48 states to help with testing, patient care and vaccinations.
The administration has come under increased pressure to quickly expand testing capabilities. The White House has been criticized for not anticipating rising demand for testing kits, particularly heading into winter and the holiday travel season.
The federal government recently opened nine testing sites in New York, with three more scheduled to be up and running Sunday, and it plans to open more sites in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in the coming days, Zients plans to say Wednesday.
Biden announced earlier this month that the U.S. would be distributing 500 million at-home tests for free to Americans starting in January. Zients said he expects the contract for those tests to be completed next week with the first delivery from some manufacturers starting in January, but he didn't give a more specific timeline.
"We're actively working to finalize that distribution mechanism which includes a website where people will be able to order tests for free and we'll share more details in the weeks ahead," Zients said.
In New York, which has had one of the biggest spikes in infections from the omicron variant, 60 medical personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 30 ambulances arrived last week to help transport patients and provide relief to hospitals at capacity. A 23-person military medical team is scheduled to arrive in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Friday.
In Arizona, where hospitals are particularly strained, 20 FEMA paramedics arrived on Christmas Eve, with about 40 more expected to treat patients in Maricopa and Pima counties and in tribal communities starting next week.
Biden told governors in a video call Monday that the federal government was prepared to provide additional support.
“If you need something, say something. We are going to have your back any way we can,” he said.