President Joe Biden said Thursday he is sending 120 military medical personnel to six "hard-hit" states to provide relief as the latest highly contagious variant of the coronavirus sweeps through the country and jams up hospitals.
The deployment to Michigan, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New Mexico comes after U.S. Army North announced Dec. 30 that 65 doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists were going to hospitals in three states.
But the military assistance could still just be the beginning, depending on how the omicron variant spreads. The Pentagon said it now has 1,000 additional active-duty medical troops ready for deployment to civilian hospitals around the country if needed.
The announcements echoed the earlier days of the pandemic when the active-duty military was called up, hospitals struggled to treat waves of patients sick with COVID-19, and vaccines had not yet been approved. But the Pentagon said it will not be sending out hospital ships or setting up field hospitals this time.
"These are smaller teams, and they're going to hospitals -- actual, you know, brick-and-mortar hospitals -- to help alleviate the strain on the health care workers that are already there," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.
The omicron variant has swept through all areas of the U.S., among the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. But unvaccinated Americans are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized with the disease than the 210 million people in the country who have been vaccinated and are likely to experience mild symptoms or remain asymptomatic, Biden said in a television address Thursday.
Biden said too many Americans are still "sitting on the sidelines" of the pandemic fight because they haven't taken the vaccine. "If you haven't gotten vaccinated, do it," he said.
"But 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 added.
Omicron is now expected to account for about 95% of COVID-19 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There were 705,264 new cases reported Jan. 5, which is more than double the peak number of cases in January of last year.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, along with Biden and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, met Thursday with military personnel who were already supporting hospitals in Arizona, New York and Michigan.
More than 400 active-duty medical troops were assisting federal and state partners with the pandemic before the new deployment, Kirby said. Since Thanksgiving, over 800 military and federal emergency personnel have been deployed to 24 states, Native American tribes and U.S. territories, according to Biden.
In addition to the active-duty assistance, more than 15,000 National Guard troops are activated in 49 states to aid the pandemic response in areas including clinical care, testing and vaccinations, Kirby said.
"It's been a long road, but what's clear is we get through this when everybody does their part," Biden said. "No matter where you live, no matter your political party, we've got to fight this together."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.