White House Announces Plan to Battle Omicron, Delta Variants This Winter

THURSDAY, Dec. 2, 2021 (HealthDay News)

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a new round of measures to protect Americans against the spread of coronavirus variants.

The strategy will include making rapid at-home COVID-19 tests free for more people, extending rules on mask wearing on planes and other modes of transport, launching public awareness campaigns on vaccinations and booster shots, starting family mobile vaccination clinics, and implementing tougher testing requirements for travelers arriving in the country.

“Free and highly available rapid tests would be a game-changer,” Charity Dean, a former California health official and CEO of the Public Health Company, told the Washington Post. “If we had rapid tests at every door for every school, every movie theater, any person can go and get them — just like they can in many other countries — it would enable people to have personal responsibility and know when they're infectious.”

Under Biden's new plan, Americans covered by private health insurance would be reimbursed for buying rapid, at-home coronavirus test kits.

"We now have at least eight at-home testing options and prices for those tests are coming down, but it still isn't good enough in my view," Biden said during a speech announcing the new strategy. "That's why I'm announcing that health insurers must cover the cost of at-home testing, so that if you're one of the 150 million Americans with private health insurance, next month your plan will cover at-home tests."

"The bottom line, this winter you will be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind," Biden added.

As part of the overall strategy, it's also expected that a rule requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses and at airports and transit stations that was set to expire on Jan. 18 will be extended until mid-March, a person familiar with the decision told The New York Times.

The measures will enable businesses and schools to remain open while keeping people safe, according to the White House.

“We are pulling out all the stops to get people the maximum amount of protection as we head into winter months,” a senior administration official said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday night, the Post reported.

New measures to combat the coronavirus are long overdue, according to some public health experts.

They say vaccine hesitancy makes the nation vulnerable to a potential winter surge of infections, the Post reported.

As of Dec. 1, only 59.4% of Americans were considered fully vaccinated against the virus, the Post reported.

“We're going the wrong way” on vaccination status, said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, adding that the United States should aim to immunize at least 80 percent of its population. But “we're at 59 [percent] and fading,” Topol told the Post, and many vaccinated Americans' protection has likely waned because they have yet to get booster shots.

The nation's testing capability also remains inadequate, with many Americans unable to obtain rapid tests they could take before going to work or family gatherings, especially during regional outbreaks, Topol and other experts noted.

“So much of the next phase of COVID depends on easy, rapid access to testing, whether it's Omicron or quick access to oral treatments” or compliance with employer vaccine mandates, said Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and director of Maine's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“About the only thing I am sure of in this is that I would rather confront Omicron vaccinated and boosted,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Post. “So boosters should be a major deal.”

More information

Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on COVID testing.

SOURCE: Washington Post, The New York Times

Robert Preidt and Robin Foster

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