The U.S. military is joining another forever war against an unconventional enemy force, hiding in the civilian population in a never-ending quagmire—though this time it’s the novel coronavirus, so you can let out a deep breath.
Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the U.S. military will be deploying teams of medical personnel to some of the areas hardest hit by the ongoing pandemic and the extremely contagious Omicron variant in six states (New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan, and New Mexico). The 120 service members will deploy to hospitals seeing surges of patients that are overwhelming medical staff, a list that according to Bloomberg includes Coney Island Hospital in south Brooklyn and University Hospital in Newark. Some 350 military personnel have already been aiding pandemic response since Thanksgiving, although the administration anticipates the six new teams being dispatched will be followed by additional waves.
“When you need something done, call in the military,” Biden said during an announcement on Thursday.
Biden also announced his administration will produce and distribute “high-quality masks” for free to the population, which could be best described as desperately overdue. He added his administration will purchase 500 million additional covid tests, in addition to a purchase of 500 million announced before Christmas.
“That will mean a billion tests in total to meet future demand,” Biden said. “And we’ll continue to work with the retailers and online retailers to increase availability.”
The previously announced batch of the first 500 million tests has yet to reach the public. The first shipments are not expected to roll out for weeks, and it will take months for all of them to be manufactured and distributed.
According to WABC, roughly one out of four staff at the 11 hospitals run by New York City are absent from work due to illness. Nurses at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx will be speaking on Thursday to denounce conditions of overcrowding and scarcity of resources that they say have resulted in, among other things, a lack of proper isolation for patients who have tested positive for and are likely infectious with the virus.
Members of the National Guard have been deployed over the past two years across the country to help staff everything from test and vaccination sites to medical facilities dealing with a deluge of patients. Members of the Guard recently mobilized in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York to help relieve doctors and nurses at state-run medical facilities. Kentucky’s Governor Andy Beshear recently mobilized hundreds more Guardsmen, bringing the total number to 445 spread out among 27 hospitals and 10 other medical facilities.
The staffing crisis has hit hospitals nationwide. Department of Health and Human Services data released on Wednesday shows that one out of five hospitals in the U.S. is at “critical levels,” according to USA Today; in Vermont, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and West Virginia, that number rises to a third, and in New Mexico and Rhode Island, it’s half.
The chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned this week that with an “extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility,” Omicron “will ultimately find just about everybody.” He added the unvaccinated, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimates comprise just over 37% of the population, are “going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this.”
At this point, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine tracker shows that the estimated number of confirmed cases in the U.S. is nearing 63.4 million, with 845,000 estimated deaths (both numbers are almost certainly underestimating). Some 12.8 million of those cases were in the last month. The New York Times tracker puts the 7-day moving average of new cases in the U.S. at over 780,000, by far the highest it has ever been.
While data currently indicates Omicron causes much lower rates of hospitalization and death than previous variants, which peaked in January 2021, that has been offset by its rapid spread. The Times tracker shows that deaths have recently been averaging at over 1,800 a day, and researchers currently do not have any data as to how likely Omicron is to cause persistent symptoms known as “long” covid. Yale University immunologist Akiko Iwasaki told Reuters, “People who underestimate Omicron as ‘mild’ are putting themselves at risk of debilitating disease that can linger for months or years.”
Some cities on the East Coast, including New York City, have released data indicating that the Omicron surge may be beginning to plateau, the Washington Post reported, though it remains too early to know for certain. Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC, told the paper, “Omicron is more like a flash flood than a wave. It goes to enormously high levels very quickly and then, based on other parts of the world, may come down very quickly.”
Frieden urged people to get vaccinated: “We know that the more people who are up to date with their vaccines, the fewer deaths there will be, the fewer hospitalizations there will be and the less economic disruption there will be.”