Photo of Joe Biden

Background Press Call Previewing the President's Speech on the Country's Fight Against COVID-19

December 20, 2021

Via Teleconference

6:13 P.M. EST

MR. MUNOZ: Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us on tonight's call on the President's remarks tomorrow on the country's fight against COVID-19, including new steps the administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance. In just a few minutes, we will send you guys an embargoed factsheet.

Joining us on tonight's briefing will be [senior administration official]. As a reminder, this call will be embargoed until tomorrow at 5:00 a.m. Eastern and attributable to "senior administration officials."

Please raise your hand for the Q&A portion. But with that, I will leave it to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right. Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us tonight. Tomorrow, the President will address the American people about Omicron, as we head into the holidays.

Early this month, he laid out a robust winter plan to get people to maximum protection as we head into the winter months and (inaudible) a new variant.

Tomorrow's address will build on that plan. He'll start by acknowledging that this is an uncertain time and many Americans have questions -- questions about gathering with family, how to be safer, and if we're headed towards lockdown.

Tomorrow, the President will answer all of those questions and lay out new steps he's taking to prepare for rising cases (inaudible) in the weeks ahead.

Before I go through those steps, I'll start where the President will start, which is: We know we have the tools to get through this wave. As you'll hear the President say tomorrow, if you're among the vast majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated, and especially if you've got your booster shot, you have a high degree of protection against severe illness.

Because Omicron spreads easily, we will see fully vaccinated people get COVID-19, but vaccinated people who get COVID will likely have no symptoms or mild symptoms.

Because of that strong protection, the President will tell the American people that if they are vaccinated and follow the process that we all know well, especially masking while traveling, they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as they planned.

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 8 times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID.

Unfortunately, because we have about 40 million eligible yet still unvaccinated adults, and because we know Omicron is more transmissible, we are prepared for cases to rise.

The steps the President will announce tomorrow will build on the Winter Plan he laid out a few weeks ago. These steps fall into three main categories: First, increasing support for hospitals. Second, increasing access to free testing. And third, expanding capacity to get shots in arms.

The first, on increasing support for hospitals: The President will announce several steps to ensure states and hospitals around the country have the personnel, the beds, and the supplies they need as they battle rising Omicron cases among the unvaccinated.

The President is directing Secretary Austin to mobilize 1,000 members of our military -- these are doctors, nurses, medics, and other military medical personnel -- to deploy overburdened hospitals in January and February.

These doctors and nurses and others will be ready to deploy to neighboring hospitals that need them. God willing, we will not need all of these servicemen and women, but if we do, they are ready and they are mobilized.

Second, we're also expanding hospital capacity. We have already built out two new medical surge facilities in Louisiana, added about 30 beds for COVID patients in Baltimore, and expanded ICUs and emergency departments in California.

The President has asked the FEMA Administrator to activate the National Response Coordination Center and to deploy FEMA planners to assess hospital needs and start to expand that capacity now. Additionally, we will pre-position critical supplies and materials needed to shorten timelines to get more hospital beds online and keep staff safe. We have hundreds of millions of high-quality masks, billions of gloves, thousands of ventilators. We've prepositioned these supplies in strategic locations across the U.S. so that if a hospital runs out, we can get those supplies to states that need them immediately.

Next, we're expanding access to testing. Since January, the President has taken significant actions to increase testing. This summer, we used the Defense Production Act to increase testing capacity, and we will continue to use the DPA.

We've invested $3 billion to expand the number of at-home tests. There are now 20,000 free testing sites across the United States. We made sure the insurance -- private insurance covers -- all insurance covers PCR testing and will also cover at-home testing in the new year. We're sending out 50 million tests to help people without private insurance.

And tomorrow's steps build on that progress. The President will announce that the federal government will set up new federal testing sites around the country. The first of these will be set up in New York City before Christmas. And the President will announce that the administration will purchase half a billion at-home rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans that want them.

The initial delivery of these tests from the manufacturer will be in January, and we will be setting up a website where Americans can go to get at-home tests delivered to their home for free.

Testing in the country is a lot better than it was, but there's more to do and we're taking action now.

Finally, we're expanding capacity to get shots in arms. FEMA is standing up new pop-up vaccination clinics. We're deploying hundreds of additional federal vaccinators who will help add thousands of appointments each week. And pharmacies nationwide are adding appointments and capacity across their networks.

So, before I close, I'll just say the bottom line for the American people is this: We should take Omicron seriously, but this is a cause for concern not a cause for panic. We have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have the planning to get through this.

If you're fully vaccinated and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected. So that's what (inaudible) President will go through tomorrow.

And with that, we can take questions.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Thank you. And I promise we'll have that factsheet to you all soon.

First question, let's go to Joyce Frieden at Medpage Today.

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. You talked a lot about what the President is doing to increase testing. What about the fact that tests are now very hard to come by in commercial pharmacies in some areas? Is there anything being done to increase distribution?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Joyce. First, I'd start with just reminding us of where we've come from. We now have 20,000 free testing sites. We've used the DPA, including steps in the past two weeks, to help increase the number of tests -- both PCR and at-home tests -- that are available. We've spent $3 billion, which helps us quadruple the number of at-home tests that are available to Americans as we close out this year. And obviously, we've done the insurance coverage.

But we are doing more. And I'd say the biggest thing we're doing, to get to your point, is buying half a billion tests -- at-home tests -- to be able to give to the American people for free.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, next question. Let's go to Shannon Pettypiece.

Q: Hi. I was wondering: Could you talk a little bit more about how this at-home testing purchase is going to work? So, for example, like how many tests will be available starting in January? Where can people go to get those free tests?

And how are you recommending people use the test? Should they only be used if they've had exposure to someone who they think is infected? Should they just be using it if they're going to be going out to dinner with friends? What's -- so a little bit more of how this will work and, sort of, what the guidance is for people right now on testing.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Shannon. So, on your first part, the first delivery of these tests will -- from manufacturers -- will arrive in January. We're setting up a free and easy system to get those tests out to Americans, including the website I mentioned. We're actively working to finalize those distribution mechanisms, and we'll share more details in the weeks ahead on that.

And then on your second question, I'd say -- how they're used -- we, obviously, continue to follow CDC guidance for the use of all tests, including the rapid at-home test. So, I think that's what we would encourage Americans to do.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Next questions. Let's go to David Lim at Politico. You're unmuted.

All right, we'll try to come back to you. Let's go to Spencer Kimball at CNBC.

Q: Hi, can you hear me?

MR. MUNOZ: Yep.

Q: Okay. Yeah, my question is also about the at-home testing. What is the administration's guidance for people who are traveling right now? It's December 20th, so if somebody wants to get tested to be safe before flying home to visit family, or if somebody is showing symptoms and they can't find an at-home test at a pharmacy, or if the lines are too long at clinics or clinics are at capacity, what are they supposed to do?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks, Spencer. Obviously, if they have symptoms, they should make sure they're testing and not, you know, traveling around with a lot of -- a lot of (inaudible) and exposing people if they have symptoms. I think what -- what we've done -- and I mentioned all of the testing actions we have already taken. That includes quadrupling the at-home test and making sure insurance can cover PCR testing.

We do have 20,000 free testing sites around the country. And we've worked with Google to make sure that people can actually go into a Google search engine, search "free COVID test near me" -- "free COVID test near me" -- to find all the sites near them. So if their neighborhood one doesn't have an appointment for them, this will allow them to find some that might be still close by that they're not aware of.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. We're going to try to go back to David.

Q: Can you hear me now?

MR. MUNOZ: Yep.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.

Q: Hi. Okay. I realize that the supply of at-home tests is limited for the time being, but I wanted to ask about other testing modalities.

In terms of PCR testing and laboratory turnaround times, is the President going to address what appears to be an extension of the time between when people take tests and when laboratories are going to be able to return those test results in the coming days to weeks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, David. Look, we continually work with labs across the country. We've built out the PCR capacity tremendously since the beginning of the administration. We continue to work with them to make sure they have all the supplies they need and can expand their network of testing, and we'll continue to do that.

MR. MUNOZ: Next question. Let's go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC.

Q: Hi. Thank you. I wonder: Is there a plan for the government to track the results from these 500 million rapid test kits that are sent out to Americans, given that right now it's a little bit of a blind spot with how many people are using the at-home tests and that that doesn't get reported to public health officials for contact tracing and whatnot?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Cheyenne. Look, we do not plan to track the results of Americans on these tests. What we would ask Americans, as we have for a while, is: If you test positive, you should consult with your doctor and local public health departments.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Hopefully some other questions.

Sheryl Stolberg, New York Times.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this call. I have a couple of questions about testing also, and one about FEMA.

The President recently announced that people would be able to file for reimbursement for at-home tests -- those who have insurance would be able to do that. So, what happens to that plan?

Separately, you said that there would be -- you are going to set up new federal testing sites and there will be one in New York before Christmas. Can you talk a little bit more about how many testing sites you envision and where they're going to be?

And finally, with respect to FEMA, do you have an eye on where you might expand hospital capacity next? You said that you've expanded in Baltimore and also in New Orleans, and I'm wondering, you know, where else is there need and what's the next step there.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Sheryl. Okay, I'm going to try to get -- make sure I get these right.

So, I think your first one was on reimbursement at home for folks' private insurance: That stands. That action will be effective by mid-January, and that will still allow Americans to buy and get reimbursed through private insurance for their tests. That is not in lieu of the $500 million; that's in addition to.

So, all of these are additive steps just to make it easier and more affordable for Americans to get these at-home tests that we know are very popular.

Your second question, I think, was on New York City and the testing sites. We will actually have several of those up in --the first several open in New York City before the Christmas holidays.

And we're going to continue to add sites based on where states and communities have capacity constraints and where the state and local public health officials request our assistance.

So, we'll continue to do that, you know, over the coming weeks into January and February as needed.

And then you asked about expanding hospital capacity. You know, I think the thing that we're doing here and that FEMA is doing is deploying planners. And we've been working with people over the course of the Delta surge, obviously, deploying planners to talk to every state to make sure that they have plans in sight and then start to activate those plans now and actually start to build out the hospital beds.

I still have to mention one other thing related to hospital beds, which is we're also deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to help transport patients from overburdened hospitals where you might not be able to get a bed -- get a bed to hospitals nearby that might have open beds.

So, we're really trying to think creatively about how we relieve some of the burden on our hospitals.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. We have time for a few more questions. Let's go to Chris Megerian at the Los Angeles Times.

Q: Hi, everybody. I just wanted to clarify one thing about the new website. Did you say this new website was not going to be available for people to order additional free tests until January? And why not until then?

And lastly, just to clarify, this $500 million is in addition to the $50 million that's already being distributed to clinics as announced in the Winter Plan?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Chris. So, correct, the website will be in January. It will be in January because that's when we will have the tests available to be sent to Americans, and those will be paired. And this is in addition to your mentioning of the $50 million that was already announced.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Andrew Restuccia at Wall Street Journal.

Q: Thanks. You mentioned the DPA and how you might continue to use it. Can you clarify, you know, in what capacity you'd continue to use the DPA and for what purpose?

And then, also, on the distribution of the 500 million at-home tests, can people go on the website and request more than one test? Or is it one per customer? And would they be delivered by mail or will they need to be picked up somewhere?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Andrew. So, first, to your first question on the DPA, we've used the DPA over the course of the summer and, most recently, last week to increase testing capacity. One example: Just in the past two weeks, we used the DPA to ensure that we had two testing manufacturers who needed raw materials and specialized equipment to produce more tests. And so, we used the DPA to ensure they got the raw materials and they got that equipment and could rapidly expand. Those are both at-home tests -- or sorry, over-the-counter tests and point-of-care tests.

And then the $3 billion award that we talked -- that I talked about earlier that we did in September, we're also leveraging the DPA and helped us mobilize industry and brought additional -- that additional testing capacity that I mentioned earlier.

On, I think, your second question on the at-home test, we're working through the specifics of how many tests would be available to each American household. We'll have those details in the coming weeks. And they will be delivered by the mail.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, last question. Let's go to Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Can you just say, in the deliberation process that led to this, did you consider whether or not to ask Americans to stay home or to do more to limit what -- their interactions, given the rise of this? And if so, why didn't you decide to do that? Is it that, you know, we want to put incentives in place for the vaccinated?

You know, this seems like the strategy is, more or less, cope with the cases that we're going to see rather than necessarily head off or try to head off any new ones. And I'm just hoping you can walk us through philosophically where you're at, at that. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Josh. You know,

we have the tools, more than ever in this pandemic, that there's no need to lock down our schools and our economy. And you'll hear that from the President tomorrow. You know, our vaccines work against Omicron, especially if you're boosted.

As I said, we have 90,000 sites. It's free, it's easy, it's convenient to get vaccinated. We are increasing. We have significantly increased testing capacity. And today, we're announcing really big -- or tomorrow, we're announcing really big actions, including 500 million tests to be bought by the U.S. government and handed to Americans for free, and the creation of new federal testing sites.

We already have strong masking guidance in place. We're asking Americans to follow that masking guidance. And we've extended, as you know, the masking requirement on plans through early in the new year.

And, you know, we're doing surge -- these surge teams, which we've been doing throughout. And the President is now directing 1,000 additional troops, hundreds of ambulances, and expanding hospital beds.

So, we're not complacent here. We are acting strongly to ensure that we get Americans the most protection we have. And we're prepared for what we think will be an increase in unvaccinated hospitalizations in the coming months. And we're going to be prepared for that, even as I think Americans who are fully vaccinated and who are following the precautions that we all know well can enjoy their holiday -- can and should enjoy their holiday.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, well, thank you, [senior administration official]. And thank you, everybody, for joining.

As a reminder, I'll send a factsheet. And this is embargoed until tomorrow morning at 5:00 a.m. Eastern and attributable to "senior administration officials." Thanks again.

6:34 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call Previewing the President's Speech on the Country's Fight Against COVID-19 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353951

Simple Search of Our Archives