U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a video call with the White House COVID-19 Response team and the National Governors Association in the South Court Auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Dec. 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Biden spoke to governors about their concerns over the omicron variant and the need for more COVID-19 tests. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the federal government will deploy military medical units to six states to assist hospitals overwhelmed with the recent spike of the omicron coronavirus variant.
Starting next week, more than 120 medical personnel — the beginning of a deployment of 1,000 service members — will go to hospitals in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico. Cases have surged, with more than 780,000 positive tests a day, according to data by the New York Times.
“I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year,” Biden said. “The omicron variant is causing millions of cases and record hospitalizations.”
Biden added that 500 million tests, in addition to 500 million promised earlier, will be distributed to Americans who request them, as well as high-quality masks. He said a website where Americans can request a free test will be set up as early as next week.
Biden said that those with health insurance could get reimbursed for up to eight tests a month and for those without insurance, there are about 20,000 free testing sites across the country. He urged people to search for them on their own.
“We’ve got to fight this together,” he said.
Biden urged Americans who are not vaccinated to get their shots and for those who are vaccinated to get the booster shot. However, children 4 and under are not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The single most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated if you’re not vaccinated,” he said.
Biden was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
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Two miles away at Howard University Hospital in the District of Columbia, members of the DC Nurses Association — a labor union representing health care workers in D.C. — protested outside the hospital for safer working conditions.
“Nurses are also being pushed by supervisors to come to work even when they are sick; some of these nurses have come to work, only to have to leave because of illness,” Eileen Shaw, a registered nurse and chair of the DCNA, said in a statement.
“Employers need to immediately hire more nurses and assistive personnel in every unit and on every shift to ensure a safe work environment in which we can do what we were trained to do — provide compassionate and expert care to each patient.”
Days before Christmas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued emergency guidance for health care facilities that were facing shortages of health care workers due to exposure to COVID-19. The CDC said that health care workers who tested positive for COVID-19 could return to work after seven days if they test negative — rather than isolate for 10 days.
“As the health care community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at the time.
“Our goal is to keep health care personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our health care facilities. Our priority, remains prevention — and I strongly encourage all health care personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”
National Nurses United, one of the largest union groups for registered nurses, wrote a letter to Walensky, asking for the previous guidelines for isolation to stay in place.
“Weakening COVID-19 guidance now, in the face of what could be the most devastating COVID-19 surge yet, will only result in further transmission, illness, and deaths,” they wrote.
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