US starts shipping free COVID tests amid Omicron -White House

COVID-19 pandemic in New York

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Postal Service has begun shipping free at-home rapid COVID-19 tests after millions of orders were placed through a new federal website launched this week, the White House said on Friday as the rise in Omicron-related cases shifted nationwide.

The federal government has tens of millions of tests on hand and started sending them on Thursday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients told reporters at a briefing, adding the administration would release more data next week.

The push to get tests in the hands of Americans at no cost, along with free best-protective masks, comes as the surge in cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant began to subside in some states.

The average daily U.S. COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant fell about 5% in the past week, particularly in areas that saw an early surge such as New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. There were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days.

"In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the Omicron variant beginning to decline," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at the briefing. "The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead."

Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations were down about 1% at 21,000 on average in the past seven days, she said, with daily deaths at more than 1,700 per day.

Walensky also said the agency was looking to shift its language on COVID-19 vaccinations to encourage Americans to be "up-to-date" by having a timely booster dose, but did not say whether it was formally changing its definition of fully vaccinated.

"Protection against infection and hospitalization with the Omicron variant is highest for those who are up to date with their vaccination, meaning those who are boosted when they are eligible," she said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Carl O'Donnell Editing by Aurora Ellis and Sandra Maler)