By Susan Heavey and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden on Thursday said he would send more military health workers to hospitals in six U.S. states and provide free masks and more free tests to help Americans tackle the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
He announced the phased dispatch of 1,000 military health personnel beginning next week as U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a record high and health facilities faced a staffing crunch.
"I know we're all frustrated as we enter this new year," Biden said, reiterating his message that COVID-19 remains a "pandemic of the unvaccinated." He said the military deployment would help hard-pressed hospitals nationwide.
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.
Hospitals due to receive the health workers welcomed the assistance but cautioned the teams ranging in size from seven to 25 might not be enough to slow 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 receive 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.
Over 65% of the hospital's COVID patients are unvaccinated, and over 90% have not had a booster shot, Henry Ford officials said.The more aggressive White House stance follows months of criticism from health experts who said 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.
A Democrat, Biden had sought to boost that rate by mandating large businesses require employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly. On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down the vaccine-or-test policy, while upholding a separate vaccine requirement for healthcare facilities.
The court's conservative justices deemed the policy an improper imposition on the lives and health of many Americans.
MORE TESTS AND MASKS
Biden also announced he would direct the U.S. government to procure an additional 500 million COVID-19 home tests to help meet surging demand. The White House had previously pledged to make 500 million tests available starting in January.
The administration next week will announce plans to make high quality masks available for free, Biden said, noting that about a third of Americans report they do not wear a mask.
Biden's administration began deploying federal COVID-19 teams last summer. In December, he directed his defense secretary to ready another 1,000 medical forces and sent more than 100 federal medical personnel to Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Some states' hospitals are at or near capacity.
New Jersey had 6,089 COVID patients in hospital on Wednesday, a Reuters tally showed. Around 73% of hospital beds in the state were filled, as well as 53% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds. Two hospitals in New York City, which is also grappling with a surge in cases, will receive military medics next week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul said.
In Rhode Island, where the Department of Health and Human Services said 86% of hospital and 90% of ICU beds are filled, hospital officials were hopeful federal help would offset staffing shortages.
Several states have declared emergencies to loosen regulations and free up funding to cope with the surge.
There were 133,871 people hospitalized with COVID in the United States on average over the past week, the Reuters tally showed https://tmsnrt.rs/3npijjD. The increase has forced several states to postpone elective surgeries.
To date, 847,664 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States among 63,268,225 reported total cases as the outbreak enters its third year.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland Nandita Bose and Rami Ayyub in Washington, Maria Caspani in New York and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Heather Timmons, Howard Goller and Bill Berkrot)