President Joe Biden will announce on Thursday his new plan for fighting the omicron and delta COVID-19 variants this winter, which includes directing private health insurers to cover the costs of at-home coronavirus tests for roughly 150 million people.
The development comes a day after the first known case of the omicron variant was detected in the United States and as the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 this year has surpassed the death toll of 2020.
"We are pulling out all the stops to get people the maximum amount of protection as we head into the winter months," a senior administration official said of the strategy. "While this new variant is a cause for concern, it is not a cause for panic. We have the tools we need to confront this variant to keep making progress in our fight against the virus, and we are using these tools to keep people safe, keep our schools open, and protect our economy."
BIDEN VOWS TO FIGHT OMICRON SURGE WITH SHOTS AND MASKS, NOT NEW LOCKDOWNS
Biden's plan expands on the administration's past approach to combating community spread of the delta variant and features nine specific areas of focus:
- Boosters for All Adults
- Vaccinations to Protect Our Kids and Keep Our Schools Open
- Expanding Free At-Home Testing for Americans
- Stronger Public Health Protocols for Safe International Travel
- Protections in Workplaces to Keep Our Economy Open
- Rapid Response Teams to Help Battle Rising Cases
- Supplying Treatment Pills to Help Prevent Hospitalizations and Death
- Continued Commitment to Global Vaccination Efforts
- Steps to Ensure We Are Prepared for All Scenarios
Administration officials say that in addition to covering the costs of at-home rapid tests, "tightening" pre-departure testing requirements for international travelers will "help catch more cases, potential cases of people who may be positive before they fly into the country." Flyers, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, will now be required to show proof of a negative antigen test no more than one day prior to departure for the U.S.
Officials did not say if the administration is considering similar testing requirements for domestic travel but did extend the air travel mask mandate, set to expire in January of 2022, through March.
The plan also increases measures encouraging the vaccination of school age children over the age of 5. Those include launching new family vaccination centers, which officials referred to as "one stop shops" where "kids can get their first shot, parents and grandparents can get their first or second shots or boosters if it's time."
Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will "review school COVID prevention policies, so entire classrooms or schools don't have to shut down when there is a positive case" and release new guidelines in the coming weeks.
It's worth noting that the strategy appears to follow Biden's pledge not to enact new lockdown or shutdown measures as a means of fighting omicron, including pressuring states that the CDC has identified as having low rates of community spread to reenact local mask mandates.
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"We have existing CDC guidance that's been in place for several months on what we think and what CDC believes is the best public health measure, which is if you're in a substantial area of substantial or high transmission, that you do have indoor masking in place for individuals of any vaccination status," an official explained. "So that's certainly what we're practicing in the federal government and practicing in the White House, and we hope that state and local authorities do the same."