President to Governors: ‘We’ve Got Your Back’ When it Comes to Omicron
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden assured a bipartisan meeting of governors Monday that when it comes to responding to outbreaks of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the federal government will do everything it can to support state and local health care responders.
“There is no federal solution,” he said in response to a comment from Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the current chair of the National Governors Association. “Ultimately, [the battle to defeat] the variant is going to occur where the rubber meets the road … Where there is a patient in need of help.”
“My message to you today is if you need something, say something,” the president said. “We are going to have your back in any way that we can.”
The president’s comments came during a virtual meeting Monday afternoon between the governors group and the White House COVID-19 Response Team. It was the 40th such meeting since Biden took office in January.
The response team also engages regularly in one-on-one contact with the governors and their respective health care teams.
Hutchinson began the meeting by thanking the president for public remarks he made last week, trying to depoliticize the nation’s response to COVID-19 and also for the administration’s promise to expand access to additional rapid COVID tests.
“This has become a real challenge for the governors,” Hutchinson said.
The Arkansas Republican went on to laud the Response Team for keeping governors informed of the state of pandemic and responses to it “every step of the way.”
“A good example of this was last week. I had asked for more monoclonal antibodies treatments for high-risk COVID-19 positive individuals and we received them right away,” he said. “We still have a limited supply, but the responsiveness is very much appreciated.”
Outlining the current situation confronting many of the governors on the call, Hutchinson said while hospitalizations are down compared to this time last year, the overall number of coronavirus cases thanks to omicron are up and the demand for testing has accelerated accordingly.
“In Arkansas we have a test-to-stay-at-school program,” he said. “It’s a pilot program in 50 schools at the moment, and we would like to expand it. We have sufficient tests to be able to do that, but we as governors are getting pressure to do more and the need is great in terms of the rapid test and its availability.”
Hutchinson said while Biden’s promise last week to make 500 million rapid tests available to Americans through the federal government “is great … Obviously that dries up the supply chain for the solutions we might offer as governors.”
“So my one word of caution here is that your team make sure that we do not let federal solutions stand in the way of state solutions.”
Biden began his remarks by reiterating what he’s said in the past.
“Omicron is a source of concern, but it should not be a source of panic,” he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated, and you’ve gotten your booster shot, you are highly protected.
“If you’re unvaccinated, you’re at a high risk of getting severely ill with COVD-19, of being hospitalized and perhaps even dying,” he continued. “But this is not like March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic. We are prepared and we know what it takes to save lives, protect people, and keep schools in business. We just have to stay focused and continue to work together.”
Last week, the president said, the administration took steps to bolster the effort.
“Number one, we increased capacity to get more shots to vaccinators and into more arms … and since then we’ve added appointment times for booster shots, adding additional hours every day,” he said.
“The second thing we’re doing revolves around testing,” Biden continued. “Seeing how tough it was for some folks to get a test this past weekend shows that we still have more work to do and we’re doing it.
“When I took office 10 months ago — and the nation was 10 months into the pandemic — we had zero over-the-counter COVID tests in the United States,” he said. “Anyone wanting to get one had to go to a clinic or a drug store to get the test and there were very few places to go where you didn’t have to wait.
“We’ve quadrupled the number of pharmacies offering tests … And there are now more than 20,000 places where you can get a test for free and many of these locations allow you to book an appointment online, in advance, to minimize your wait,” the president continued. “We’ve also worked with Google so you can now search “COVID test near me” and find a place to go quickly.
“Now I know the lines have gotten very long in some states. That’s why I ordered FEMA to set up pop up sites in places with high demand,” Biden said. “To shorten the wait for tests, we stood up six new sites in New York City in five days.”
Returning to the subject of at-home COVID tests, Biden said from zero availability on the day of his inauguration, there are now eight different tests on the market, “and just three days ago another test was cleared.”
“And we’ve gone from zero over-the-counter tests in January, to 46 million tests in October, 100 million in November, and almost 200 million in December,” he said. “Now, I know that’s not enough. It’s clearly not enough.
“So now we’re going to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production and send rapid tests to the American people free as they request them. And starting in two weeks, private insurance will reimburse you for providing access to free tests for folks who don’t have insurance. But we have to do more. We have to do better. And we will,” the president said.
The president went on to address the governors’ concerns over support for their hospitals if the omicron surge develops as predicted.
“On hospitalizations, let me start with this: because we have so many people vaccinated and boosted, we’re not seeing the hospitalizations rise as sharply as they did in March 2020 … or even this past fall,” the president said. “America has made progress. Things are better.
“But we do know that we still have … millions of unvaccinated people and we’re seeing hospitalizations rise. It means our hospitals, in some places, are going to get overrun,” Biden said. “That’s why we’ve stockpiled and prepositioned millions of gowns, gloves, masks and ventilators … and are mobilizing an additional 1000 military doctors, nurses and medics to help staff hospitals. FEMA is deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients. We’ve already deployed emergency response teams in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire and New Mexico. And we’re ready to provide more hospital beds as well.
“The bottom line is I want to assure the American people that we are prepared. We know what it takes. And, as this group of bipartisan governors has shown, we’re going to get through it by working together.”
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