US President Joe Biden is directing the US government to procure an additional 500 million Covid-19 tests to help meet surging demand across the country amid the spread of the Omicron variant, a White House official told Reuters on Thursday.
The order comes on top of another 500 million tests that the White House pledged would be available to Americans in January.
“In addition to the 500 million tests that we are in the process of acquiring, today he is directing his team to procure 500 million more tests – to meet future demand,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Biden has come under criticism for not focusing more on testing earlier as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic. A nationwide shortage of tests has plagued the response in recent weeks during the rampant spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Biden plans to announce his order for the additional procurement later on Thursday.
The official said the tests would be free for American consumers and that the White House would share more details about their distribution at a later date. Details about the website that will have information on the first tranche of 500 million tests will be available on Friday, the official said.
When the original 500 million tests were announced, experts said the White House’s actions were not bold or fast enough to deal with Omicron’s spread.
Tests have been difficult for many Americans to find, driven in part by rapid test supply shortages as well as staffing shortages at the urgent care centers, pop-up sites and pharmacies that administer the tests. More recently, staffing at the laboratories that process the more complex PCR tests has also become a factor, frustrating many seeking to know quickly whether they are infected with COVID-19.
While the official count of Omicron cases in the United States continues to rise, there are signs that in some areas that were hit early on, such as the Northeast, the pace of new infections has begun to slow.