'We have more work to do,' Biden says of COVID test shortage

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday pledged to ease a shortage of COVID-19 tests as the Omicron variant spreads across U.S. states this holiday week, threatening to overwhelm hospitals and stifle travel plans.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his COVID-19 Response Team, Jeff Zients, COVID-19 Response Coordinator, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor, hold their regular call with the National Governors Association to discuss his Administration’s response to the Omicron variant and to hear from the Governors on the needs in their States, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House, in Washington, U.S., December 27, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Biden said the administration’s steps include using a law called the Defense Production Act to increase production of at-home tests and making it easier to use Google to find a nearby testing location.

Biden conceded that the efforts have not gone far enough.

“Seeing how tough it was for some folks to get a test this weekend shows that we have more work to do,” Biden said as he joined a call with the administration’s COVID-19 response team and a group of state governors.

“It’s clearly not enough. If we’d known, we would’ve gone harder and quicker if we could have.”

Rising cases snarled air travel over Christmas weekend as flight crews contracted the virus, causing thousands of flight cancellations. Curtailed cruises and limited availability of testing crimped other plans as the more transmissible variant took hold.

On Monday, U.S. airlines canceled about 800 flights, the fourth straight day of cancellations which dented travel-related stocks. Still, strong holiday retail sales appeared to overshadow economic worries.

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COVID-19 infections are rising nationwide, with 205,509 new infections reported on average each day, a Reuters tally showed.

On Sunday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said hospitalizations in his state doubled in one week as his health department urged caution ahead of New Year’s Day.

Biden on Monday warned governors that the spike in cases was likely to overwhelm some hospitals, whose staff and equipment like ventilators may get stretched, particularly in areas where a high proportion of people are not vaccinated.

He later told reporters he would follow whatever guidance his medical experts provide on whether to reduce here the 10-day recommended quarantine period for Americans who test positive for COVID-19.

The president declined to say whether he endorses a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel, another step administration officials have discussed in recent days.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, on Monday urged people to avoid large New Year’s gatherings to reduce the Omicron-driven spike in cases.

While officials have said people can safely gather with families if they are vaccinated, larger celebrations are riskier.

“When we are talking about a New Year’s Eve party … I would recommend strongly stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,” Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN.

Fauci said he hoped the surging cases would subside in January but added that more infections overall could still overwhelm hospitals, especially in highly unvaccinated areas.

“We really still need to be extremely careful,” he said separately on MSNBC.

Last week, Biden announced reinforcements to bolster hospitals and testing, but some healthcare experts say that effort is too little, too late here.

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