Speaking at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland on Thursday, President Joe Biden outlined his strategy to fight the winter onslaught of COVID-19, despite news that cases of the recently identified omicron variant have already been detected in the US.
As reported earlier, the president’s plan tightens rules for international travel into the US, requiring all air travelers – including US citizens – to show negative COVID-19 test results taken within 24 hours prior to boarding their flight. Previously tests had to be administered within 72 hours of the flight.
According to reports, administration officials are saying the new testing requirement will go into effect Monday, Dec. 6.
Not included in the president’s announcement were two steps reportedly under consideration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One would require a 7-day self-quarantine for arriving passengers, and another would make post-arrival testing mandatory.
However in another move that impacts travelers, the White House is extending to March 18 the mask mandate in airports and on most modes of public transportation. The rule – which had been set to expire on Jan. 18 – also doubles fines for individuals who are noncompliant with the requirement.
The rapid spread of the omicron variant has prompted the US to join about 70 other countries worldwide in banning travel from several countries in Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The US restrictions, which went into effect Monday, apply to individuals who have been “physically present” in the designated countries during the “14-day period preceding their entry, or attempted entry into the United States.”
The arrival of the omicron variant may also signal a change on the question of making vaccinations mandatory for domestic travelers. Two weeks ago Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview that domestic air travelers in the US are not likely to face a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from the Biden administration any time soon.
But this week when asked about the possibility, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I would say that nothing is off the table, including domestic travel.” Psaki went on to add that there are “some strong protections in place already, including the requirement of mask wearing.”
It’s an idea that has been discussed among administration officials for some time, and it enjoys at least the backing of Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. In September, Fauci told an interview that he supports the idea, but at the time wasn’t proposing it.
Among the other measures outlined by the president, the government will push private health insurers to reimburse the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests. The plan would also make another 50 million tests available free for the uninsured.
The president’s plan also beefs up the number of “surge response teams” that provide extra staff at hospitals that are overrun with patients.
The administration’s primary weapon in the COVID-19 fight continues to be vaccines, and the president once again urged all eligible Americans to get the vaccine or booster shot to fight the coronavirus in all its variants. Currently less than 60 percent of the US population is considered fully vaccinated against the disease.
However, some health experts see the pivot toward increased testing as an acknowledgment that a vaccination strategy alone is not enough. Wider testing of a larger segment of the population and continued mask wearing are also essential, they say, especially if the omicron variant proves to be more resistant to vaccines.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said, but went on to warn that infections will rise this winter.