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By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said on Thursday he is directing the U.S. government to procure an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests to help meet demand across the country amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

The order comes on top of another 500 million tests that the White House pledged before the Christmas holiday would be available to Americans this month.

"Today I'm directing my team to procure ... an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free," Biden said ahead of a briefing from advisers.

Reuters was first to report Biden's move.

The president has come under criticism https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-biden-analysis-idCAKBN2IZ0WD for not focusing more on testing earlier as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic. A nationwide shortage of tests has plagued the response in recent weeks during the rampant spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

A White House official said earlier on Thursday the tests would be free for American consumers and that the White House would share more details about their distribution at a later date. Details about the website that will have information on the first tranche of 500 million tests will be available on Friday, the official said.

When the original 500 million tests were announced, experts https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/biden-omicron-measures-too-little-too-late-fast-moving-virus-experts-2021-12-23said the White House's actions were too slow and not bold enough to deal with Omicron's spread. Since then, the Department of Defense has signed contracts with two procurement companies, Revival Health https://www.reuters.com/world/us/pentagon-awards-contract-revival-health-covid-test-kits-2022-01-07 and Goldbelt Security https://www.reuters.com/world/us/pentagon-awards-52-mln-contract-covid-19-test-kits-2022-01-07, to provide them.

Tests have been difficult for many Americans https://www.reuters.com/world/us/americans-grapple-with-prolonged-testing-woes-amid-omicron-surge-2022-01-12 to find, driven in part by rapid test supply shortages as well as staffing shortages at the urgent care centers, pop-up sites and pharmacies that administer the tests. More recently, staffing at the laboratories that process the more complex PCR tests has also become a factor, frustrating many seeking to know quickly whether they are infected with COVID-19.

Biden acknowledged Americans' frustration but said testing availability had improved.

"This month it's estimated that we will hit approximately 15 million tests a day and we'll have over 375 million at-home rapid tests in January alone," he said. "That's a huge leap."

Biden said the administration was on track to roll out a website next week from which people will be able to order free tests to be shipped to their homes. He also said the administration would announce next week how it would make masks available to Americans for free.

While the official count of Omicron cases in the United States continues to rise, there are signs that in some areas that were hit early on, such as the Northeast, the pace of new infections has begun to slow.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)

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People line up at a Covid-19 testing tent in Los Angeles, California on January 3, 2022, with new cases soaring in the United States amid the rapid spread of the infectious Omicron strain
People line up at a Covid-19 testing tent in Los Angeles, California on January 3, 2022, with new cases soaring in the United States amid the rapid spread of the infectious Omicron strain

Washington (AFP) - The United States reported more than one million new Covid-19 cases Monday after the long New Year's weekend, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, as the Omicron variant spread at a blistering pace.

There were 1,080,211 new cases in the country, a global record, although the number of cases reported on a Monday is usually higher than other days because of delays in weekend tallying, especially after such a three-day holiday weekend.

Still, the figure is double the number of daily cases compared to the previous Monday.

The rolling average over seven days -- which experts see as more reliable -- was 486,000 cases per day as of Monday evening, the university said.

The new figure comes a day after top US pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said the country was experiencing "almost a vertical increase" in Covid-19 cases, adding the peak may be only weeks away.

The heavily mutated Omicron strain -- the most transmissible to date -- accounted for around 59 percent of US cases in the week ending December 25, according to government modeling.

Fauci said the experience of South Africa -- where the strain was first detected in late November and peaked quickly, then subsided nearly as speedily -- offered some hope.

Rates of death and hospitalization in the United States have been lower in recent weeks than during previous Covid surges.

With 9,382 deaths over the past seven days, the nation's death toll has fallen by 10 percent, week on week.

In the last seven days, the country has recorded 3.4 million cases according to Johns Hopkins data.

The US record during previous waves was 258,000 cases per day, for the week of January 5 to 11, 2021.

Officials have struggled to find a balance that will protect public health without gravely damaging the economy or slamming key services like policing and air travel.

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halved the isolation period for asymptomatic Covid cases to five days, in a bid to blunt mass Omicron-induced disruption as infections hit new highs in multiple states.

And on Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer's Covid-19 booster shot for children as young as 12 ahead of the reopening of schools following the holiday break.

Covid-19 has killed at least 5,441,446 people globally since the outbreak emerged in December 2019, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources on Monday.

Taking into account excess mortality linked to Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimates the overall death toll could be two to three times higher.