A new campaign led by public health experts and grassroots activistsincluding the daughter of a Covid-19 victimis calling on the Biden administration to deliver rapid tests and high-quality masks to every household in the United States as the nation faces a tsunami of new infections.
"We are asking you to mail an ample and continuous supply of free rapid at-home tests and N95-quality masks to every household in America twice a month through May 2022, with additional supplies sent to first responders, healthcare workers, and public centers in our most impacted communities," reads campaigners' open letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator.
"What we're experiencing right now is an absolute overwhelming of the emergency departments."
The new pressure initiative comes days after the Biden administration announced it would distribute 500 million free coronavirus tests to U.S. households that request them beginning in January, a plan that was criticized as inadequate to the task of combating the latest Covid-19 surgewhich experts believe is largely attributable to the ultra-contagious Omicron variant.
On Thursday, the U.S. tallied more than 580,000 new Covid-19 cases, shattering the previous daily record set just 24 hours earlier. Columbia epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman stressed in an interview with The Washington Post Thursday that the official figures are likely a significant undercount.
"We're talking somewhere up to maybe 10 million people [infected in recent days," Shaman said. "Maybe not all of them are contagious yet. Crazy numbers. Crazy, crazy numbers."
In their open letter, leaders of the "Dear Zients" campaign argued that the White House's strategy in the face of Omicron is "not nearly enough" to solve the national shortage of test kitswhich are more expensive in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries.
"Website-driven sign-ups place the burden on individuals and create unnecessary barriers and delays, often for those with the fewest resources (ie. people in areas lacking internet access, digital literacy, or language proficiency)," the letter reads. "The most efficient, equitable, and effective path requires removing all barriers to [test] access as quickly as possible."
The campaigners also emphasized the importance of high-quality masks in the fight against the heavily mutated Omicron strain, against which widely used cloth face-coverings appear to be less effective.
"High-quality masks are... necessary to keep the virus at bay," the open letter states. "We know that fully vaccinated and boosted individuals can be vectors, contributing to the infection of vulnerable community members and the evolution of new variants. Additionally, research demonstrates that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals suffer from Long Covid, which can result in a lifetime of disability."
The ramped-up federal distribution of tests and masks, the letter continues, "must be accompanied by federal guidance on data-driven state and local mask and testing policies that mitigate risk from unavoidable gatherings and bolster the effectiveness of current vaccination efforts."
While research out of South Africa and other countries has provided some hope that the Omicron-fueled increase in cases will be less severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths than earlier spikes, healthcare workers and experts have warned that a massive rise in infections could swamp understaffed and strained hospitals.
Dr. James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital, told CNN on Wednesday that the Omicron wave is "unlike anything we've ever seen, even at the peak of the prior surges of Covid."
"What we're experiencing right now is an absolute overwhelming of the emergency departments," Phillips said.
Writing for the Post last week, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves argued that a full-scale "national mobilization" is necessary "to put this pandemic behind us." Thus far, he argued, President Joe Biden has failed to deliver.
"We already know vaccines alone will not solve this problem," Gonsalves wrote in his op-ed. "Public health experts called for more emphasis on a wider range of interventions, including rapid testing, masking, and environmental controls, such as the upgrading of ventilation systems in buildings across the country. Yet such measures remain underutilized here in the United States."