Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Faced with an alarming rise in coronavirus cases that threaten to overwhelm the nation’s hospital system, President Biden further stepped up his administration’s response to the pandemic on Tuesday and tried to reassure an anxious nation, telling Americans that “we should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked. “

In a speech at the White House, Mr. Biden asked his Secretary of Defense to get 1,000 military medical professionals ready to help when needed; he announced new vaccination and screening sites; and he said his administration was purchasing 500 million Covid-19 rapid tests to distribute free to the public from January through a new website.

But first, Mr Biden took on the role of chief comforter, reminding Americans that despite the highly contagious new variant of Omicron, the situation the country faces today is much different from when it started. of the pandemic in early 2020, when there were no vaccines or treatments, and life-saving medical supplies were insufficient. He insisted, as he has in the past, that there was no longer a need for a lockdown now.

“We are not in March 2020,” Mr. Biden said. “Two hundred million people are vaccinated. We are ready; we know more.

The speech comes at a precarious time for Mr Biden, who has vowed to curb the pandemic, to be faced with a shape-changing virus that now kills more than 1,000 Americans every day and is spreading again at an astonishing speed . – and a divisive political climate in which many Americans, especially supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, have refused to be vaccinated.

In his remarks, Biden acknowledged the former president, noting that Mr. Trump recently said he received a recall and that “thanks to the previous administration and the scientific community, America is the one of the first countries to be vaccinated. “

But he also denounced the “dangerous disinformation on cable TV and social media,” and the companies and personalities who “make money by peddling lies and allowing disinformation that can kill their own customers and their own. supporters “.

The president’s decisions build on a winter pandemic strategy he announced three weeks ago and reflect an awareness inside the White House of the growing threat from the Omicron variant.

While Mr Biden acknowledged that the virus infected some vaccinated people, he urged unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated and vaccinated people to receive boosters if they are eligible, saying the unvaccinated have “a distinct risk. higher to end up in the hospital. – or even die.

Some infectious disease experts say it is simply not possible now to stop the spread of the virus and the administration must focus on slowing the spread, protecting the most vulnerable and preventing overload already strained hospital systems.

“The main goal, really, is to keep people from losing their health and straining hospitals, delaying cancer care and surgeries for those who need it, delaying burnout. health workers, “Lu Borio, former acting chief scientist for the Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview. Preventing infection completely, she said, is “not a winnable battle”.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that Omicron, which caused less than 1% of new Covid-19 cases in the United States at the start of December, now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases, a statistic that underscores the urgency of Mr Biden’s decisions. So-called “breakthrough infections” among those vaccinated are increasingly common, although many of these cases involve mild symptoms or none at all.

As a result, experts say, people will have to rely on tests not only to determine if they are sick, but also to guide them in their daily activities, such as going to work or to social gatherings. Matching test supply with demand has been a challenge for the Trump and Biden administrations, and the US has fallen behind Europe in making home testing cheap and easy. available.

The 500 million tests that the administration intends to buy, and the website where Americans can request them, will not be available until January. Much will depend on precisely when it is.

“It’s great to publicly and clearly recognize the important role of testing, but success now depends on how quickly these tests can be distributed and having a clear and easy process in place to do so,” he said. said Mara Aspinall, expert in biomedical sciences. diagnosis at Arizona State University. “Time is of the absolute essence. January is realistic, but is it January 4th or January 24th? There is a big difference there.

Some said the test plan was too small, too late. “A start (finally), but billions are needed to prevent the spread,” Dr Eric Topol, Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote on Twitter. Dr Topol suggested in a separate essay that the president could have acted more aggressively on other fronts, for example by distributing K95 masks to all households.

Mr Biden, however, defended himself, insisting on answering questions after his remarks that the scarcity of testing was not a failure of his administration. He also said he plans to reverse travel restrictions he placed on eight African countries after the Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa.

It was not immediately clear where the tests would come from, how they would be shipped, or if there would be limits to the number an individual could order. Officials said the president will continue to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up test production.

Mr Biden’s plan for new federal testing sites will debut in New York City, where several new sites will operate before Christmas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will also open new pop-up vaccination clinics, officials said, including four in New Mexico that were scheduled to open on Tuesday.

Hospital officials praised the plan. Rick Pollack, chief executive of the American Health Association, a nonprofit group for hospitals and health care networks, said in a statement that Mr. Biden’s measures “would help hospitals and their caregivers to continue. to provide the care on which their patients and communities depend ”.

As much as trying to solve the practical problems facing the nation, Mr Biden has tried to grapple with the nation’s wounded psyche.

“I know you’re really tired, and I know you’re frustrated,” he said, adding, “We all want this to end, but we’re still there.”