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As Omicron surges, Biden to expand testing

The Biden administration will open federal COVID-19 testing sites in New York City this week and buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can order online for free as it tackles the Omicron variant sweeping the country.

Health officials in Texas said on Monday the state recorded what ABC News reported is believed to be the first known US death related to Omicron.

Striking a more dire tone about the risks of remaining unvaccinated, President Joe Biden will lay out the initiatives on Tuesday in a speech that aims to persuade Americans to protect themselves from the fast-spreading variant, a senior administration official said.

The measures include activating some 1000 military medical personnel to support hospitals.

“We will also note that if you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalised and 14 times more likely to die from COVID,” the official said.

With the holiday travel season already begun, new COVID-19 cases are surging in the United States, prompting local and federal officials to again confront just how far to go to combat the virus. Federal officials said that Omicron now accounts for 73 per cent of all new cases, up from less than 1 per cent at the beginning of the month.

The highly contagious variant was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong, and has raced around the globe and been reported in 89 countries, the World Health Organisation said on Saturday.

Lines for COVID-19 tests wrapped around the block in New York, Washington and other US cities over the weekend as people clamoured to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays with family.

Facing criticism that testing resources are inadequate, Biden will announce on Tuesday that the federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid tests and make them available to all Americans in January.

Americans can access a new website to have them delivered, but officials are still working on how many tests a household can request.

The administration will also open multiple federal testing centres starting in New York City ahead of Christmas, a senior administration official said.

More federal sites will be opened across the country in areas of high need and when requested by local and state officials, the official said.

The free tests are in addition to a plan to have health insurers provide free tests for Americans with coverage that is also expected to begin in January.

Biden will note that the Omicron variant is so contagious that it will infect vaccinated Americans but that they will be far less likely to get seriously sick.

So-called breakthrough infections are rising among the 61 per cent of the country’s fully vaccinated population, including the 30 per cent who have gotten booster shots.

Still, Biden will tell Americans that those who are vaccinated and follow guidance around using masks, especially while travelling, should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as planned.

New COVID-19 cases rose 9 per cent in the United States in the past week but are up 57 per cent since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally.

The number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients has increased 26 per cent this month.

There have been almost 51 million infections and 809,268 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most of any country.

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