A soldier transports a patient at UMass Memorial Medical Center on December 30, 2021 in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Joseph Edel | AFP | Getty Images
President Joe Biden on Thursday announced the deployment of six teams of military medical personnel to overwhelmed hospitals in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico.
The operations, which total 120 staff, come as hospitals struggle with staffing shortages as nurses and other medical workers are called in sick by omicron amid a spate of patients infected with the highly contagious variant.
Biden also said the government plans to buy another 500 million Covid tests to distribute for free across America, in addition to the 500 million it is already raising.
The US has deployed more than 800 military and rescue workers since Thanksgiving, Biden said. More than 14,000 members of the National Guard have also been activated in 49 states to help with the Covid response, according to the president.
Biden said the US has also more than tripled the national stockpile of high-quality N95 masks.
“I’ve made sure our doctors, nurses and first responders have the masks they need,” Biden said. “Never again will our nurses use homemade masks and garbage bags over their hospital clothes because they don’t have the gowns.”
Biden said his administration will also provide highly protective masks for free to Americans who cannot afford them.
“I know the mask isn’t always affordable or convenient for some Americans,” Biden said. “So next week we will give good notice that we are making quality masks available to Americans in this way.”
Covid-19 hospitalizations are higher than last winter before widespread vaccine distribution. More than 152,000 people in the US were hospitalized with Covid on Wednesday, up 18% from last week, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“As long as we have tens of millions of people not getting vaccinated, we will have full hospitals and needless deaths,” Biden said. “So the most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is to get vaccinated.”
The U.S. reported nearly 900,000 new infections on Wednesday, taking the seven-day average to more than 786,000 new cases a day — a pandemic record and up from 37, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University % over the previous week .
According to HHS data, an average of more than 1,000 hospitals across the country are currently reporting critical staffing shortages. It’s likely an undercount, however, as many hospitals didn’t report their status on Wednesday.
dr Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said the strain on frontline workers is worse now than at any other point in the pandemic.
“Many places across the country are getting to the point where even their backup employees are getting sick,” Schmitz told CNBC on Wednesday. “Pretty much the whole country is feeling this spate of staffing-impact cases right now.”
Biden announced his plan to deploy 1,000 military medics to support hospitals in December as omicron quickly overtook the Delta variant. The Federal Agency for Civil Protection also provides additional hospital arches and dispatches ambulances and rescue workers to transport patients.
“It’s not enough,” Schmitz told CNBC on Wednesday. “I know everyone is trying to support as best they can, but even within our national structure, resources are limited.”
Epidemiologists have warned that the sheer scale of Omicron infections still threatens to swamp hospitals with patients, even if the variant is generally less severe than Delta.
Infectious disease experts found in a study this week that Omicron patients in Kaiser Permanente Southern California were 74% less likely to require critical care and 91% less likely to die from the virus than people infected with the Delta variant . According to the study, none of the omicron patients required mechanical ventilation.
The overall risk of hospitalizations was 52% lower in Omicron patients compared to people with Delta, according to the study. Also, Omicron patients had hospital stays about three days shorter than their Delta counterparts.
Kaiser Permanente Southern California serves more than 4.7 million people. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, analyzed more than 52,000 Omicron cases and nearly 17,000 Delta cases.
Doctors and nurses have been warning of staff shortages for months. The American Nurses Association in September asked the Biden administration to declare the nursing emergency a national crisis.
“The country’s healthcare systems are overwhelmed and nurses are tired and frustrated as this ongoing pandemic rages on with no end in sight,” ANA President Ernest Grant said at the time. “Caregivers alone cannot solve this long-standing problem and it is not our burden to bear,” Grant said.
The Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Janet Woodcock told lawmakers on Tuesday the US must ensure hospitals and other essential services don’t collapse when people call in sick.
“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is that most people are going to get Covid,” Woodcock testified before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday. “What we need to do is ensure hospitals continue to function, transportation and other essential services are not disrupted while this is happening.”
CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this article.