Biden to announce 500 million COVID-19 at-home test buy

President BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE on Tuesday plans to outline additional steps to make at-home COVID-19 tests available for Americans and to bolster capacity in some of the most overburdened hospitals across the country.

In a speech aimed at both reassuring the country and persuading Americans to take precautions, Biden will announce that the administration plans to purchase 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests to distribute for free to any American who wants one.

In his speech, Biden will also announce that the U.S. will stand up new federal testing sites around the country, helping states that need additional testing capacity. The first will be set up in New York City this week.

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Biden campaigned on efforts to make COVID-19 testing cheap and widely available, but the system is being strained by a surge in demand as the omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country, as well as thousands of cases that continue to be driven by the delta variant. 

Rapid tests are in short supply right now amid the demand surge. At the same time, turnaround times for lab-based tests are growing and people are waiting hours in long lines for testing centers. 

Still, an administration official insisted the White House has lived up to the promise.

"We've invested $3 billion to expand the number of at-home tests. There are now 20,000 free testing sites across the United States. We made sure that all insurance covers PCR testing, and we're sending out 15 million tests to help people without private insurance," a senior administration official told reporters.

Under the effort that will be announced Tuesday, tests will start to become available in January, and the administration will set up a website where people can order them to be delivered to their homes, according to the senior administration official.

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Health officials are still working through the specifics, including how many tests would be available for each household. 

The new initiative comes just two weeks after White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiPelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better Biden 'hot mic' with Fox's Doocy fuels speculation Poll points to COVID-19 fatigue problem for Biden MORE sarcastically responded to a question about why the U.S. can't subsidize massive amounts of free testing like many countries overseas. The administration had just announced that Americans with private health insurance will be able to get reimbursed for tests.

When a reporter noted that sounded complicated and suggested tests be available for free, Psaki said defensively, "Should we just send one to every American?” 

“Then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?" Psaki said.

Advocates have been pushing for greater access to rapid at-home tests since the early days of the pandemic, saying that frequent and cheap rapid tests can help limit the spread of the virus without resorting to business closures by giving people the ability to know when they are infectious and need to isolate, and when they are not. 

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Biden's speech comes amid a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections, driven by both omicron and delta. The omicron variant now makes up 73 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That spike is a significant increase from just 12.6 percent of cases one week earlier.

Biden is expected to say that Americans who have been vaccinated and boosted will be largely protected from severe illness from the omicron variant, but also acknowledge that many Americans will still get infected but experience mild symptoms.

According to the senior administration official, Biden is expected to say that fully vaccinated people "should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as they planned."

But the official noted that because there are still 40 million eligible adults who remain unvaccinated, "we are prepared for cases to rise."

The administration will also unveil a plan to mobilize 1,000 military medical personnel, as needed, to help hospitals and staff that are being overwhelmed and burnt out by staffing shortages and by a crush of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients anticipated in January and February. 

"We're prepared for what we think will be an increase in unvaccinated hospitalizations in the coming months," the administration official said. "And we're going to be prepared for that, even as I think Americans who are fully vaccinated and who are following the precautions that we all know well can enjoy their holidays."