WASHINGTON — President Biden will announce a new plan Thursday afternoon for combating the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The plan includes a new campaign to increase uptake of booster shots, new policies meant to provide Americans with free at-home coronavirus tests, and more stringent policies on international travel.
Public health officials still don’t know much about the Omicron variant, including whether it causes milder symptoms than other forms of the coronavirus, or whether it is more transmissible than other variants. The first case of the Omicron variant detected in the United States was announced by U.S. health officials on Wednesday.
Biden’s new plan focuses largely on speeding up the slow uptake of booster shots in the U.S., particularly among older adults. It will include new public relations campaigns from the Department of Health and Human Services and from AARP, the interest group for Americans over age 50, to push booster shots.
The push comes on the heels of a Monday announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it is now recommending all adults get a booster six months after receiving their second shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or two months after receiving a shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Nearly 100 million Americans are currently eligible to receive a booster and have not done so, a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.
There’s debate, however, within the public health community over whether focusing on boosters is the best way to combat the Omicron variant. Two former senior Food and Drug Administration officials and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory panel recently urged the Biden administration not to focus on boosting all Americans, especially until more is known about whether existing vaccines will be effective in preventing infection with the Omicron variant.
The Biden administration is also announcing a number of initiatives aimed at ramping up at-home testing for Covid-19. The new plan promises that Americans will soon be able to get reimbursed for at-home Covid-19 tests through their health insurance. HHS will release formal guidance by Jan. 15 requiring private insurance companies to pay for these tests, according to a fact sheet on the plan.
There are eight Covid-19 tests currently authorized for at-home use by the FDA. Two of the most popular tests, which are made by Abbott and Ellume, retail for $23.99 and $38.99, respectively. Neither is covered by insurance for at-home use.
The Biden plan also includes new policies meant to prevent the spread of Omicron through international travel, but it stops short of expanding existing travel restrictions on countries currently experiencing the Omicron variant. The Biden administration announced late last week that it was restricting travel from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi, and South Africa.
The new policy will require that all international travelers to the U.S. test negative for Covid-19 within one day, regardless of a travelers’ vaccination status or nationality. The policy is expected to be enacted “early next week,” according to a fact sheet on the plan. Fully vaccinated travelers previously were required to test negative for Covid-19 within three days of departure for the U.S.
Biden’s plan also includes a number of measures meant to increase vaccination among children, including a new effort to launch hundreds of family vaccination clinics across the country.
Biden will also pledge to deploy more than 60 emergency response teams throughout the country to help combat the spread of Omicron this winter, including more than 20 “monoclonal antibody strike teams” to help administer these treatments, which can help prevent serious illness and death from Covid-19, and more than 15 “CDC expert deployments” to help state and local health officials track Covid-19 outbreaks.
Biden is expected to publicly announce his plan at 1:40 p.m. Thursday at the National Institutes of Health.
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