President Joe Biden, speaking to the nation’s governors, conceded Monday the steps he took earlier this year to scale up testing capacity for Covid-19 weren’t enough to meet demand as a wave driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant crashes across the country.
“It’s not enough. It’s clearly not enough. If we’d have known, we’d have gone harder, quicker if we could have,” he said while joining a weekly virtual meeting between state leaders and members of his Covid-19 response team.
He said long testing lines over the Christmas weekend “shows that we have more work to do.”
Biden’s recognition of the testing shortfalls came a week after he laid out an enhanced strategy for combating the new surge focused heavily on accelerating testing and vaccinations.
The new steps, which included ordering 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can obtain for free, came too late to avoid disruptions to winter holiday plans. Thousands of flights were canceled as airline staff tested positive. Many Americans downsized their plans amid the viral spread. Biden’s new tests, and the website where Americans can order them, won’t be in place until next month, the White House has said.
Biden noted in his remarks that private insurers will soon be obliged to reimburse Americans for tests. But he said those steps weren’t sufficient as the Omicron surge drives caseloads to record levels in areas of the Northeast.
“We have to do more. We have to do better, and we will,” Biden said.
It was Biden’s first time joining the weekly call convened between his Covid team and governors. Briefly greeting the leaders before beginning a closed-door question-and-answer session, Biden said it was their work that would ultimately contain the pandemic.
“There is no federal solution — this gets solved at state level,” Biden said at the beginning of his remarks from the White House, where around 25 governors from across the country beamed in virtually for a weekly conference call. “That ultimately gets down to where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where the patient is in need of help — or preventing the need for help.”
He added, “My message to the governors is simple: if you need something, say something. We’re going to have your back in any way we can.”
Speaking ahead of Biden, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, thanked the President but voiced a note of caution about the plan to procure half-a-billion at-home tests, saying it had the potential to scramble “the supply chain for the solutions we might offer as governor.”
“As you look towards federal solutions that will help alleviate the challenge, make sure we do not let federal solutions stand in the way of state solutions,” Hutchinson said.
American governors have calibrated their approach to Omicron as an exhausted public reckons with a pandemic that is nearing its two-year mark. Many have resisted putting in place new restrictions, following Biden’s pledge to keep the country open even amid record case numbers.
Still, some states have reimposed mask mandates and are preparing for a spike in hospitalizations by cutting elective surgeries at certain facilities.
The President did not make any major announcements during the call. Biden departed later in the afternoon for a brief holiday stay at his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, after spending the Christmas weekend with family at the White House.
As he left the White House, Biden told reporters he received a positive reception from the governors.
“They didn’t tell me they’re worried, but they thanked me for the cooperation they’re getting. They said they’ve gotten all that they need, they just want to know what we think is going to happen from here,” Biden said, adding that the group asked Fauci additional questions about testing and other topics.
“There were no complaints, a lot of cooperation,” he added.
Part of the plan Biden unveiled last week included sending materials and resources to areas where hospitals are experiencing strain. The White House said 1,000 military health personnel would be readied to provide assistance at over-burdened hospitals and that FEMA would activate teams to help states expand hospital capacity.
The plan also called for pre-positioning critical supplies — including gloves, masks, gowns and ventilators — for shipment when states need them. And the federal government has begun standing up free testing sites, including in New York City.
On Monday, Biden, citing the Stafford Act, directed federal funding via FEMA to assist in the deployment of Covid testing.
“It is the policy of my Administration to combat and respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic with the full capacity and capability of the Federal Government to protect and support our families, schools, and businesses, and to assist State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments to do the same,” Biden writes. “This policy includes the use of emergency and disaster assistance available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get COVID-19 testing to the places that need it most.”
The order directs the Department of Health and Human Services “on a fully reimbursable basis, to provide testing sites, launched and operated by HHS in close coordination with State, local, Tribal, and territorial public health departments,” using FEMA funding.
Yet many health experts questioned why the steps came so late when warnings about the Omicron’s ability to spread quickly were raised last month. Long lines at testing sites persisted over the weekend, and the surge in cases shows no signs of slowing.
Weekly calls between the White House and the nation’s governors began near the start of the pandemic. During the previous administration, the sessions were led by Vice President Mike Pence, who President Donald Trump assigned to lead his Covid task force. Trump himself joined the governors calls on a number of occasions.
The change in administration brought about a new approach to the calls, which are typically led by Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid response coordinator. Public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, also join. Biden himself hasn’t joined one of the weekly calls since taking office, but he has addressed groups of governors on other occasions.
Many Republican governors have sharply criticized Biden’s efforts to impose vaccine mandates at large employers and among health care workers, and have challenged the measures in court. The Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments in cases challenging the vaccine requirements next week.
Over the summer, Biden sharply criticized Republican governors who resisted vaccine mandates and other measures to expand vaccinations, saying they were undermining his efforts to end the pandemic.
“I say to these governors, please help,” Biden said in August. “If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”
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