Biden lays out multi-pronged plan to deal with evolving pandemic
President Biden on Thursday laid out a multi-pronged plan to confront the delta and emerging omicron variants of the coronavirus that includes an expansion of at-home diagnostic tests, stricter testing rules for international travelers and new efforts to encourage vaccines and boosters.
During a speech at the National Institutes of Health, the president also sought to brace the public for a rise in COVID-19 cases this winter, urging those eligible to get their vaccine booster shots even as he showed optimism about the country's continued efforts against the virus.
“My plan I am announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19 and it’s a plan that I think should unite us,” Biden said. “I know COVID-19 has been very divisive in this country. It's become a political issue, which is a sad, sad, commentary. It shouldn’t be.”
Biden reiterated that the new variant is “cause for concern but not panic” and pledged to fight it “with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
The Biden administration early next week will put in motion a new policy for international travelers to test negative for COVID-19 within 24 hours of boarding flights to the U.S., rather than the current policy of within three days.
The administration has held off on implementing vaccine or testing requirements for domestic flights, though officials maintain that it and other steps are not "off the table."
The Transportation Security Administration is also extending its mask mandate for flights, trains and public transit until March 18.
As part of Biden’s plan, the administration will also move to allow Americans with private health insurance to seek reimbursement for at-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury will issue guidance by Jan. 15 on the new rule.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that additional details would be available in January that will shed light on when Americans can expect to get reimbursed for the tests and whether the costs would ultimately be covered by the government or the insurers.
The White House is also launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics and rolling out a new public education campaign to reach seniors who haven’t gotten their booster shots, as part of an effort to increase the uptake of vaccinations and booster shots.
In his Thursday speech, Biden called on private companies to offer workers paid time off so they can get their booster dose.
The new measures come as Biden’s vaccine mandates for private companies and healthcare workers have been stalled amid legal challenges.
“While my existing federal vaccination requirements are being reviewed by the courts, this plan does not expand or add to those mandates,” Biden said, calling it “a plan that all Americans can hopefully rally around.”
Despite his plea for unity, neither the emergence of the omicron variant nor the new White House steps to address it have shown signs of unifying the country. There are partisan divides on masks and vaccinations and Republicans have attacked Biden over his vaccine mandate for businesses.
Two cases of omicron had been detected in the U.S. — one in California and the other in Minnesota — at the time of Biden’s speech. A third was disclosed in Colorado shortly thereafter. While little is known about the new variant, first identified in southern Africa, health experts believe it has the potential to be more transmissible and that the vaccines could offer less protection against it.
Updated at 3:46 p.m.