Stricter travel regulations, more testing availability, and a greater push for vaccine boosters are all part of a nine-pronged plan designed to prepare the nation for the newly discovered Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. President Joe Biden outlined his administration’s plan on Thursday afternoon at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The update came just one day after the new variant was discovered in the US in California. Shortly before Biden took to the podium, officials released that another case of the variant had been discovered in Minnesota. By the end of the day, at least five more cases of the variant had been revealed in New York state.
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The new rules are part of an order from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The mandate will apply to all travelers age 2 and over, regardless of vaccination status.
Biden also announced that the current federal mask mandate that requires the use of masks on airplanes, in airports, and while traveling on other modes of public transportation has been extended through March 18.
Stopping Short of Lockdowns
Biden was clear in his address that the nation’s new plan to combat the virus does not involve another round of lockdowns or shutdowns of schools or businesses. The president instead said that he wants to lean on vaccinations, boosters, and more testing as the primary avenues to contain the virus heading into the winter season.
Biden acknowledged that cases will likely rise in the coming weeks as the cold weather sets in and more people head indoors. The arrival of the holiday season will only serve to exacerbate the situation.
Another key element of the new plan is a heavy vaccine outreach. As of the beginning of December, there are 43 million Americans who have not yet been vaccinated. In addition, there are another 100 million who have not received a booster shot.
The plan of attack includes strategic partnerships with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), AARP, and Medicare to encourage boosters for all eligible Americans as soon as possible. As part of this strategy, the administration will launch a nationwide public education campaign about the importance of boosters.
Recognizing that the vaccination rates of the youth are lagging far behind, the administration is also putting a heavy emphasis on this function. Although the vaccine just became available to those in the 5 – 11 age group at the beginning of November, only four million children in this age group have been vaccinated.
The White House said that it will soon launch family vaccination clinics that offer both vaccines for children as well as adult boosters. As part of this effort, various community health centers across the US will also host family vaccination days to encourage more participation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will get involved by offering a host of mobile vaccination clinics that will be deployed to communities that do not have strong access to vaccines.
A key measure of the expanded mitigation program is the availability of more testing. As such, the federal government will now mandate that private health insurers reimburse their policyholders for the full cost of over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests. These tests will be eligible for reimbursement beginning on January 15.
The Biden administration said that they will also release 50 million more at-home tests for free to rural health clinics and other medical centers to distribute to the uninsured. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that these tests will be available as soon as this month.
The goal of the widespread availability of free at-home tests is to keep potentially infected people from interacting with others when they suspect that they have COVID-19.
Additional Measures Put in Place
In addition to the vaccine outreach and expanded testing, the White House is also helping schools with vaccination efforts through the launch of the “Safe School Checklist.” This guidance will help to avoid outbreaks through greater testing and quarantining protocols while simultaneously encouraging widespread vaccinations.
The president also used the speech to announce that the US will be exporting 200 million more vaccine doses over the next 100 doses. These exports will focus on high-risk nations in order to fight the pandemic on a global level.
Lastly, Biden detailed the implementation of over 60 winter COVID-19 emergency response teams. These teams will be available for deployment to states that are dealing with outbreaks during the high-risk winter months.
Elsewhere in the World
The US is not the only nation preparing for the potential risks of the Omicron variant. On Thursday, Germany made the bold move of announcing that its unvaccinated citizens will be subject to a lockdown, barring them from everything except essential business such as grocery stores.
The announcement came from outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel on her last day before being replaced by Olaf Scholz. Individuals who have tested positive and recovered from the virus within the last six months are exempt from the lockdown.
Merkel and Scholz also are standing together and backing the proposal for mandatory vaccination. This legislation would not go into effect until February at the earliest, pending parliamentary approval.
The news of the possibility of mandatory vaccinations in Germany is not a new measure for Europe. Neighboring Austria is also planning to mandate vaccines for eligible adults starting in February.
Greece also announced that vaccines will be required for all of its citizens age 60 and over beginning in the middle of January. Those individuals not in compliance will be subject to a fine of $100 euro each month, equating to about $113 in US dollars.