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President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccinations, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccinations, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Joe Biden on Tuesday outlined plans to expand coronavirus testing sites across the country, distribute a half-billion free at-home tests and deploy more federal health resources to aid strained hospitals, as the omicron variant drives a fresh wave of infections.

At the White House, Biden acknowledged that Americans are “tired, worried and frustrated” with covid-19, which he described as a “tough adversary.” But he stressed in remarks at the White House that “we’ve shown that we’re tougher; tougher because we have the power of science and vaccines that prevent illness and save lives.”

The president said Americans have an obligation to get vaccinated, calling it a “patriotic duty,” and pointed to former president Donald Trump’s comment that he got his vaccine booster shot.

Biden stressed that while the number of covid cases have soared to levels not seen since 2020, the outlook was far different with vaccines and other treatment.

“This is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more,” he said.

Speaking directly to parents, Biden said, “We don’t have to shut down schools because of covid-19. We can keep our K-12 schools open. That’s exactly what we should be doing.”

The Biden administration will start delivering a half-billion free rapid tests to homes next month, according to the statement, and health officials will set up a website where Americans can order them. New federal testing sites will also be established across the country, starting with one in New York City this week.

The Biden administration has emphasized increased testing as one of the pillars of its pandemic response, but it has been criticized for failing to provide at-home tests at low cost. Americans are paying $25 for a pack of two tests, if they can find any at a pharmacy.

Health officials say they fear that the emergence of the quickly spreading omicron variant could overwhelm health-care facilities nationwide. The variant accounted for 73 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States between Dec. 12 and 18, according to modeled projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To relieve overrun hospitals, the federal government will immediately send emergency medical teams to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont, the president said. Some of those states, such as Michigan, had been suffering from case surges even before the announcement of the first omicron case in the United States this month.

The administration will deploy an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health-care personnel to strained medical centers in January and February as needed, the White House said. The president is set to order the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with states and territories to prepare more hospital beds ahead of expected surges.

Federal officials have earmarked N95 masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators from the national stockpile ready for shipment to states that may require rapid assistance with medical supplies. “The Administration has pre-positioned these supplies . . . so that we can send them to states that need them immediately,” the White House said.

Biden’s speech comes three weeks after he unveiled his initial plan to combat a winter surge, which included campaigns to increase vaccinations and booster shots, more stringent testing for international travelers, and plans to make rapid at-home coronavirus testing free for more people.

But after close to a year of repeated messages to get vaccinated, administration officials have struggled to get through to holdouts, trying social media campaigns, vaccination lotteries and other efforts to raise awareness. Still, fewer than one-third of fully vaccinated people have received booster shots.

On Tuesday, Biden is expected to renew his plea with Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, as well as outline efforts to make vaccination easier, including new pop-up clinics.

“While cases among vaccinated individuals will likely increase due to the more transmissible Omicron, evidence to date is that their cases will most likely be mild,” the White House said. “In contrast, unvaccinated individuals are at high risk of getting COVID-19, getting severely ill, and even dying.”

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The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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