Biden Announces New Tough Steps to Combat COVID-19

 Biden Announces New Tough Steps to Combat COVID-19

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

President Joe Biden plans to reveal efforts his government will take to combat COVID-19 in the winter months on Thursday, including more rigorous COVID-19 travel restrictions beginning next week.

The actions are being taken as the first known instance of the omicron variation in the United States was discovered in California on Wednesday in a person who had returned from South Africa, where the variant was first discovered, more than a week ago.

In the aftermath of declining approval ratings and ahead of next year’s midterm elections, the new variety poses the latest threat to the nation’s public health, economy, and Biden’s political status.

Biden is set to announce on Thursday that his government will strengthen testing standards for all international tourists entering the country, which has already put a ban on international travelers from eight southern African countries.

International aviation travelers will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of their trip, regardless of vaccination status or country, under the new testing policy, which takes effect early next week.

The current restriction, which requires fully vaccinated individuals to show a negative test within three days before their journey, will be reduced. International passengers are already required to be completely vaccinated, but Americans are exempt from this requirement.

According to a senior administration official, the new regulation will assist prevent infected people from flying, and officials believe they will be able to execute it fast.

The tougher criteria come as the Biden administration grapples with a persistent epidemic and a country on the verge of another winter season of COVID-19 case surges as Americans head indoors.

They are part of a broader plan Biden will unveil Thursday to combat COVID-19 during the winter.

“We are pulling out all the stops to get people the maximum amount of protection as we head into the winter months,” the senior administration official said.

Other initiatives to encourage vaccines and make them more accessible will be announced by Biden, including the opening of hundreds of family immunization clinics and the initiation of a new public information campaign to target the elderly who haven’t gotten their booster injections.

The Biden administration intends to publish recommendations that will allow over 150 million Americans with private health insurance to be compensated for COVID-19 diagnostic tests performed at home. Although other details are still being worked out, reimbursement will not be retroactive.

In order to extend access to at-home examinations in impoverished neighborhoods, the administration proposes to send an extra 25 million free tests to community sites.

As more information becomes available, health officials are working with vaccine producers to prepare for the worst-case scenario, in which COVID-19 vaccines will need to be updated to meet the new variety.

Despite this, health experts and administration officials say the current vaccines are the best weapon against any variant, and there’s no reason to believe the shots won’t be at least effective against severe disease from omicron. 

“We know what we need to do to protect people,” White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci told reporters Wednesday.

“The fact is that people should wind up getting vaccinated and boosted if they’re eligible for a boost. I keep coming back to that because that’s really the solution to this problem,” Fauci said.

Enhanced testing requirements make sense from a political standpoint, but not necessarily from a public health standpoint, according to Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, because current tests are imperfect — they’re either too sensitive or not sensitive enough.

“I think the administration wants to look like they’re ‘cracking down.’ That’s because we have lower vaccination rates than many countries of our income level,” Gandhi said. 

“But honestly, I think this entire pandemic has shown us that … a highly transmissible respiratory virus, where we don’t have perfect tests, is going to enter countries, whatever we do. The best thing we can do is … vaccination,” she said.

As per Thehill, the administration has placed a strong emphasis on vaccine mandates in the hopes of forcing any remaining vaccine skeptic to comply. However, as seen by recent court decisions stalling Biden’s vaccine restrictions for companies and healthcare workers, there are limits.

Regardless of the federal government’s position, Biden is urging businesses to go ahead and impose their own immunization or testing standards.

“We’re asking businesses to step forward and do what’s right to protect their workers and to protect their communities, which is to put in place some sort of vaccination requirement or testing requirements for the workplace,” the administration official said

Some public health experts believe the White House should be tougher on states and towns about requiring masks in public places, especially if the omicron variant spreads faster than the delta variant.

“I would hope than in addition to vaccines, the administration does lean forward in terms of mask mandates and restrictions of social gatherings … if it is shown to be the case that omicron is even more transmissible than delta,” said Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser for the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary.

The White House is encouraging states and localities to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice on wearing facial coverings in places where the virus is spreading rapidly, according to a senior administration official.

Officials haven’t ruled out requiring vaccines for domestic flights, though Fauci said on Wednesday that he opposes them.

The United States is extending the mask requirement for domestic flights, train travel, and public transportation until March 18 as part of the approach announced by Biden on Thursday.

The uncertainty around the new omicron variation comes at a time when Americans are planning holiday reunions with family and friends in the United States.

Fauci said on Wednesday that while Americans may feel free to avoid wearing masks when meeting indoors for the holidays with family and friends who are known to be vaccinated, he recommended them to protect their faces when in public settings where they don’t know the vaccination status of others around them.

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