A woman takes a COVID test
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
COVID 2022

Are 500 million at-home COVID test kits enough? Four things to know about Biden’s Omicron strategy

“Five hundred million tests sounds like a lot but it’s a drop in the bucket,” one doctor said. “We should be getting to the point of having at least twice a week testing for every American family.”

Warning in a speech from the White House that the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus “is serious and potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people,” President Joe Biden announced a winter strategy that he hopes will mitigate risks from the new wave of infections.

The speech followed federal officials’ confirmation Monday that Omicron had quickly become the United States’ dominant variant, accounting for 73% of new cases, according to federal health officials.

Here’s what you need to know about this upcoming surge and the Biden administration’s response to it:

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1. Biden is expanding the nation’s testing capacity but not by much, experts say

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are becoming increasingly hard to find as many people flock to the stores to get tested ahead of the holidays. The White House said the federal government would purchase 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits and mail them to Americans who want them, starting next month.

The move is designed to make it easier for people to skip long lines to get tested. But it ultimately but may not be enough, said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.

If just half of all Americans requested just three test kits, this new stockpile would be depleted, Wen noted.

“Five hundred million tests sounds like a lot but it’s a drop in the bucket,” Wen said. “We should be getting to the point of having at least twice a week testing for every American family.”

2. Get vaccinated and get boosted, if you can

The science doesn’t lie — vaccines work. Biden urged unvaccinated Americans to get the shots and for others to get boosters if they are eligible for the extra dose.

“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said. “You have a high risk of getting sick, and if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others — including friends and family. And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital or even dying.”

Experts say getting vaccinated reduces the chance for infection and helps mitigate many of the harsher symptoms of COVID-19. To protect against this new variant, public health officials urge people to get booster shots after six months to increase antibodies and help fight against the Omicron variant.

Currently, nearly 73% of all Americans have received at least one shot while nearly 62% are fully vaccinated, according to federal statistics. Nearly 30% of fully vaccinated Americans have received booster shots.

3. Wear a mask and think about getting a better one

The spread of the airborne coronavirus can be curbed by wearing a mask, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “According to our doctors, if you are fully vaccinated, you should wear a mask indoors and in public settings,” Biden said.

Wen said the Biden administration should highlight the quality of masks to the public and require people to wear a medical-grade surgical mask, at minimum, when mandates are in play. Essentially, any mask is better than no mask. But surgical masks are much better than cloth masks.

The Biden administration has pre-positioned N95 masks and other medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile to get to healthcare providers if Omicron overwhelms hospitals and care facilities. The stockpile has hundreds of millions of such N95 masks, the White House said. N95 masks, which can filter out 95% of particles, are considered the most protective kind of face covering.

4. Holiday party? Keep it small. Invite vaccinated people

As Christmas approaches, public health experts have said it’s OK for vaccinated people to gather in small numbers but noted it is still somewhat risky.

Vaccinated people who are unknowingly symptomatic can still spread the virus, so experts urge people to limit eating and drinking indoors and wear a mask when in intimate settings. Biden said that vaccinated people should not change their holiday plans.

“Some Americans are wondering if you can safely celebrate the holidays with family and friends,” Biden said. “The answer is, ‘Yes, you can,’ if you and those you are celebrating with are vaccinated.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.