President Joe Biden on Thursday announced his administration will acquire another 500 million at-home tests to send to Americans for free, and he previewed another announcement next week about making N95 masks available at no cost.

He also highlighted a new "surge" military medical personnel to help overwhelmed medical facilities weather the spike in coronavirus cases and staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

What You Need To Know

  • President Biden on Thursday announced his COVID team will acquire another 500 million at-home tests for future need, as his administration works to procure the first 500 million to ship free to Americans
  • The first of the tests are expected to go out later this month, after the website used to distribute them launches next week, the president said

  • And the Biden administration is expected to announce next week an effort to make N95 masks free for Americans

  • He also highlighted a new "surge" military medical personnel to help overwhelmed medical facilities

The new tests bring the Biden administration's total purchase to 1 billion at-home tests, though the first 500 million have yet to begin rolling out. The president on Thursday said the website to distribute the free rapid tests is expected to launch next week.

The three new steps are necessary, Biden said, because "we remain in this pandemic — this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

"If you're unvaccinated ... you are 17 times more likely to get hospitalized," he said. "As a result, they're crowding our hospitals."

Starting next week, 1,000 military medical personnel will begin arriving to help mitigate staffing crunches at hospitals across the country. Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in at-home quarantines due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who have already been sent to states to help with acute shortages.

The administration's focus is shifting to easing disruptions from the nationwide spike in cases that is also contributing to grocery shortages and flight cancellations.

"I know we're all frustrated as we enter this new year," President Biden said Thursday.

"I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But they’re a really important tool to stop the spread," he added, promising a new effort to make "high quality" face coverings free to Americans.

The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said this week. And though research has shown those masks to be better protection, they are often more uncomfortable, and health officials are not altering their guidance to recommend against less-protective cloth masks.

The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.

The Biden administration has been working to procure the first round of 500 million tests to ship to Americans, and the federal website that will be used to distribute the tests is scheduled to go up next week, the president said.

He has also appointed Dr. Tom Inglesby of Johns Hopkins University to oversee the federal testing efforts.

On Tuesday, Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, told Congress that the highly transmissible strain will infect "most people" and that the focus should turn to ensuring critical services can continue uninterrupted.

"I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID, all right?" she said. "What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function — transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens."

The White House was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who recently recovered from his own case of COVID-19, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. They help oversee the work of the more than 800 military personnel who have been helping civilian hospitals since Thanksgiving, FEMA teams setting up testing sites and the more than 15,000 National Guard members whose work supporting vaccinations, testing and caring for patients is being covered by the federal government.

After Biden's speech, the White House said the trio would speak with federal personnel who are already on the ground in Arizona, Michigan and New York to hear about their experiences.

Biden also announced that six additional military medical teams will be deployed to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

The White House said the teams will support Henry Ford Hospital just outside Detroit, University Hospital in Newark, the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Cleveland Clinic and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.