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Biden looks to reassure governors amid Omicron surge and long lines for tests

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is pressing the White House to further accelerate production of rapid Covid-19 tests, telling President Joe Biden on Monday that testing availability has become “a real challenge” amid the Omicron-fueled surge in cases.

“The need is great to do more in terms of the rapid tests and the availability of [them],” he said, adding that rapid tests are particularly critical to ensuring children can safely attend school in person.

Speaking with Biden at the outset of a call between governors and the White House Covid-19 response team, Hutchinson, a Republican who is currently chair of the National Governors Association, praised the federal government’s coordination with governors on test manufacturing.

But he also cautioned that a new plan to buy and distribute 500 million free rapid tests could interfere with state-level efforts already underway to boost supply.

“Make sure that we do not let federal solutions stand in the way of state solutions,” Hutchinson said, calling the initiative “great, but obviously that drives up the supply chain for the solutions we might offer as governor.”

Biden in his opening remarks touted his administration’s work to boost testing availability and tamp down the surge, pointing to the planned 500 million-test purchase and a separate initiative that will soon require private insurers to reimburse the cost of at-home tests.

A White House official later emphasized that the federal government’s test purchases would come from a combination of new manufacturers and additional production capacity so as to “minimize disruption of existing production capacity of these tests, supply to retail or existing manufacturers’ commitments states or organizations.”

Biden, during his talk with the governors, acknowledged the shortages that hit several states ahead of the holidays, referencing “long lines” seen around the country and conceding that he had not done enough to prepare for the rising demand.

“It’s clearly not enough — if we’d have known, we would’ve gone harder, quicker,” Biden said. “We have to do better and we will.”

The meeting with governors came after a week that is expected to drive Covid-19 case counts sharply upward, fueled by the more transmissible Omicron variant and increased holiday travel.

The U.S. is averaging more than 200,000 cases per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by far the highest level since last winter’s surge. Earlier on Monday, top health official Anthony Fauci suggested it would be “reasonable” to consider requiring vaccination for domestic travel.

But administration officials say no such mandates are imminent. The CDC instead on Monday slashed its recommended isolation timeline for those who contract Covid-19 to five days, from the original 10 — a change that some health experts and state officials had called for in recent weeks.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, in a statement called the shortened timeline “an important step in keeping our economy, supply chains, and schools open and running.”

Biden during the call also offered an optimistic view of the next few months, telling governors that Omicron is a source of concern but not “panic” and that the federal government will be well-prepared to support states hit hard by the surge.

“This is not like March of 2020,” he said. “We’re prepared and we know what it takes to save lives, protect people and keep schools and businesses open. We just have to stay focused and continue to work together.”

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