WASHINGTON, Jan 13 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Thursday said he was deploying more military health workers to hospitals in six U.S. states, and would give Americans free masks and more free tests to tackle the fast-spreading Omicron variant around the country.
The phased dispatch of 1,000 military health personnel beginning next week comes as U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a record high with Omicron overtaking Delta as the dominant variant of the coronavirus and health facilities facing a staffing crunch.
The move is “part of a major deployment of our nation’s armed forces to help hospitals across the country manage this surge of the Omicron virus,” Biden said.
“I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year,” Biden said, while reiterating his message that COVID-19 continues to be a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
In the first wave of the deployment, teams of military doctors, nurses and other personnel will head to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island to support at-capacity emergency rooms and free up overwhelmed hospital staff for non-COVID cases, the White House said.
But with the teams ranging in size from seven to 25, hospitals due to receive the health workers welcomed the assistance but warned it would not be enough to combat the surge.
“There is not a silver bullet solution,” said Bob Riney, president of healthcare operations at Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System, which has already received some federal help and expects to welcome new military medics next week.
“We have systemic challenges (with) incredible volume and very, very tired medical practitioners … and that is true of all health systems that have been in the middle of this surge,” Riney said. The White House’s more aggressive stance follows months of criticism from health experts that the administration was relying too heavily on vaccines alone to stop the spread of the coronavirus, especially given a politically motivated anti-vaccine movement pushed by some Republican officials. About 62% of Americans are considered fully vaccinated, according to U.S. data.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, joined Biden during his speech.
She told CNN earlier the top request from states asking for federal aid “continues to be staffing.” Other states are likely to need reinforcements of military and other federal doctors and nurses as well, she said.