President Biden said Thursday he will launch hundreds of “family” clinics to get children vaccinated and older Americans boosted against COVID-19 while requiring private insurers to reimburse Americans for at-home virus tests.
Mr. Biden is scrambling to combat the omicron variant that is popping up in more places and could derail his pandemic agenda for the second time in five months.
The president, speaking at the National Institutes of Health, said his winter plan avoids economic restrictions and the type of federal mandates that previously spurred legal battles. Instead, he said it is designed to promote unity around things such as vaccinations and diagnostics.
“The plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19,” Mr. Biden said. “It doesn’t include shutdowns or lockdowns but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing a lot more.”
His emphasis on what he‘s not doing underscored the failure of lockdowns to contain the virus and the widespread public opposition to draconian government tactics.
Mr. Biden also announced the creation of 60 “winter COVID emergency response teams” available to states if they see surges and encourage businesses to mandate the vaccine for employees or test unvaccinated workers weekly. The plea amounts to a call for voluntary compliance with a regulation his administration put forward but is tied up in court ahead of the Jan. 4 deadline to begin testing.
The Republican National Committee said those mandates show that his call for unity didn’t stick.
“Biden has lied, blamed others, and failed to ‘shut down the virus’ as he promised,” said RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “Now he’s trying to force draconian vaccine mandates on American workers and businesses after repeatedly saying he wouldn’t. The White House has lost all credibility and trust from the American people.”
Mr. Biden said health insurers must cover the cost of at-home testing for 150 million Americans in private coverage and that his administration will surge tests to rural clinics and health centers used by the uninsured and those in federal coverage.
Rapid tests will be a popular screening tool ahead of holiday gatherings but the White House said the reimbursement program won’t be fully operable until mid-January because it relies on the federal rule-making process. Federal agencies must draft rules that detail how it will work, including how many test kits will be covered.
Senior administration officials said they are confident there will be enough tests to go around even if insurers pick up the tab.
“You’ll be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind,” Mr. Biden said.
The president spoke hours after Minnesota announced the second known case of the omicron variant in the U.S. — a vaccinated man who had mild symptoms and recovered.
The variant is driving renewed concerns around the virus and prodding Mr. Biden to develop new tactics, akin to a September address in which he mandated vaccines on millions of workers to combat the fast-moving delta variant.
Cases are rising rapidly in South Africa, where the omicron variant was detected, and California reported the first omicron case in the U.S. in a traveler who came back from the African nation in late November.
Mr. Biden, who cut off travel from southern African countries, said all U.S.-bound travelers must get a negative test for the virus within one day of travel. Previously, vaccinated foreigners could enter the country but had to get a test within 72 hours.
Administration officials said they will accept both rapid antigen tests and more sensitive “PCR” tests from travelers under the new rule, which takes effect early next week. They will remove a test from the approved list if it fails to detect omicron.
The administration decided to forego any new rules on post-arrival testing or quarantine — provisions that had been under discussion but would have been difficult to implement.
Mr. Biden is not imposing testing rules on domestic flights, but is extending its mask mandate on those flights until March 18.
The new case from Minnesota involved a man who traveled to New York City for an anime convention from Nov. 12 to Nov. 21 and felt symptoms on Nov. 22, indicating the virus is probably lurking in corners of the U.S. despite travel rules that defend against imported cases.
Mr. Biden said he will open “hundreds” of family-oriented clinics this winter where children can get initially vaccinated while their parents and grandparents get extra doses.
Also, pharmacies will extend their hours as part of a nationwide push to get booster shots into the nearly 100 million vaccinated Americans who are eligible for another dose but have not come forward. As it stands, only 21% of Americans have gotten a booster shot.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks attitudes on the vaccines, found in November that nearly one in five vaccinated Americans probably won’t get a booster. Pollsters found 10% definitely would not get an extra dose and another 8% probably will not.
The president said the extra shots will not only backfill waning antibodies but bolster immune-memory cells that can fend off new variants of the virus, so it is vital to come forward.
The administration will work with AARP, a key lobby for older Americans, to promote extra doses among Americans. Mr. Biden also encouraged companies to offer paid time off for employees to go get their boosters.
Scientists are trying to figure out if the omicron variant will spread fast enough to overtake the delta variant that blanketed the country, and if it causes more serious disease. Officials are hopeful that existing vaccines will fend off serious disease from the variant.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.