Biden deploys military medical teams to hospitals in six states as omicron disrupts essential services

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 deployments, which total 120 personnel, come as hospitals grapple with staffing shortages as nurses and other medical personnel call out sick from omicron amid a surge of patients infected with the highly contagious variant.

Biden also said the administration plans to buy an additional 500 million Covid tests, on top of the 500 million it is already procuring, to distribute for free across America.

The U.S. has deployed more than 800 military and emergency personnel since Thanksgiving, Biden said. More than 14,000 National Guard members have also been activated in 49 states to assist with the response to Covid, according to the president.

Biden said the U.S. has also more than tripled the national stockpile of high quality N95 masks.

“I’ve made sure that our doctors and nurses and first responders have the masks that they need,” Biden said. “Never again are we’re going to have our nurses using homemade masks and garbage bags over their clothing for hospitals because they don’t have the gowns.”

Biden said his administration would also make highly protective masks available for free to Americans who cannot afford them.

“I know that for some Americans, the mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” Biden said. “So next week we’ll announce well that’s how we’re making high quality masks available to American people.”

Covid-19 hospitalizations are higher than last winter’s peak, before the widespread distribution of vaccines. More than 152,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with Covid as of Wednesday, up 18% over the last week, according to data tracked by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“As long as we have tens of millions of people who will not get vaccinated, we’re going to have full hospitals and needless deaths,” Biden said. “So the single most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated.”

The U.S. reported almost 900,000 new infections on Wednesday, bringing the seven-day average to more than 786,000 new cases per day — a pandemic record and a 37% increase over the previous week, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

An average of more than 1,000 hospitals nationwide are currently reporting critical staffing shortages, according to HHS data. However, it’s likely an undercount because many hospitals were not reporting their status as of Wednesday.

Dr. Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said the strain on front-line 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 staff are getting sick,” Schmitz told CNBC Wednesday. “Pretty much the whole country right now is feeling this surge of cases that is impacting staffing.”