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Politics

President Biden announces more tests, masks and emergency hospital staff

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today at the White House, President Biden announced that the administration has bought a total of 1 billion rapid COVID-19 tests to send out to Americans for free. He also said the government would make free high-quality masks available. And he said more staff would be sent to support hospitals.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, I'm announcing our next deployment of six additional federal medical teams, a total of more than 120 military medical personnel, to six hard-hit states - Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island.

CHANG: That's in addition to hundreds of federal emergency staff already deployed, he said. Now, some public health experts are relieved by this new push and these new investments by the White House, but others say it's too little too late. Joining us now to explain is NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So can you just dig into what the president announced today? Give us some more details.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the immediate change is that new support you mentioned for hospitals. That's where the biggest crisis is right now. A lot of hospitals are at capacity. The country just hit a record this week for the most COVID-19 hospitalizations during the whole pandemic. The announcements on tests and masks are kind of more of a preview of what's to come. Biden said there would be a new website to order free tests next week, but the timeline of when those tests would be going out is a little fuzzy. And he said more details on the plan for the government to provide free high-quality masks would come next week as well, but it's not clear how long after that they'll actually be available.

CHANG: Right. OK. So yeah, free tests and masks are coming but later, even though the surge - it's happening now. I mean, there is already this huge demand for tests, not enough quantity. Is this response by the federal government going to be enough?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, some public health experts say no. Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation told NPR, yes, omicron came on fast, but the country was already in the delta wave.

ALI MOKDAD: These efforts should have been done much earlier. We should have been much better prepared. But yes, they will help. I mean, coming later - hopefully they'll be around for when we need - if we have another wave. I hope not. But yes, it's a little bit - it's too little too late.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Lindsay Wiley, a health law professor at UCLA, agrees. She says the administration went all in on vaccination and has been much slower on masks and tests. And she says from her perspective, this is clearly...

LINDSAY WILEY: A failure to prioritize those areas, a failure to foresee that vaccination alone was not going to be sufficient.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I should say some experts I've talked with don't agree. They say too little too late is unfair. They point out the Biden administration has used its authority to try to be more proactive, but it's come up against challenges, like the vaccine or test rule for workers that was blocked by the Supreme Court today.

CHANG: OK, that's fair. Still, I mean, some of these moves do seem a bit reactive. Like, do you think federal health officials just didn't realize the omicron surge was going to get this bad?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I mean, that could be. If you listen back just a month ago in mid-December, this was what White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients said in a briefing.

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JEFFREY ZIENTS: We are intent on not letting omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You've done the right thing, and we will get through this.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, that is not how things have played out, right? The surge has been very disruptive, including for people who are vaccinated. Flights have been canceled. Schools need volunteers because teachers are out sick. Today, my friend had to scramble to get her kids to school because there weren't any bus drivers. So the question for the White House now is, is the shift to ramp up testing and masking going to continue past this current surge? And will the U.S. finally break the cycle of only investing in public health in moments of crisis? A lot of experts are hoping the lesson sticks this time.

CHANG: We'll see. That as NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.