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White House announces new aggressive steps to combat COVID-19

President Biden is planning to announce on Thursday steps his administration will implement to fight COVID-19 in the winter months, including more aggressive travel-related COVID-19 restrictions starting next week.

The steps come as the first known U.S. case of the omicron variant was detected in California on Wednesday in a person who had returned more than a week ago from South Africa, where the variant was first detected.

The new variant presents the latest threat to the nation’s public health, the economy and Biden’s political standing in the wake of sinking approval ratings and ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Biden is expected to announce Thursday that his administration, which has already imposed a ban on international travelers from eight southern African nations, will further tighten testing requirements on all other international travelers entering the country.

The new testing policy, which goes into effect early next week, will require international air travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of their flight, regardless of vaccination status or nationality.

That shortens the time from the current rule, which requires fully vaccinated travelers to present a negative test within three days of their flight. International travelers are already required to be fully vaccinated, but that vaccination policy doesn't apply to American citizens.

A senior administration official told reporters that the new rule would help prevent infected individuals from traveling and that officials believe they will be able to quickly implement the measure.

The more stringent requirements come as the Biden administration continues to deal with a stubborn pandemic and a nation facing the threat of another winter season of COVID-19 case spikes with Americans heading 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.

Biden will announce other steps to encourage vaccinations and make them easily available, such as launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics and rolling out a new public education campaign to reach seniors who haven’t gotten their booster shots.

The Biden administration plans to issue guidance allowing the more than 150 million Americans with private health insurance to be reimbursed for at-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests. Reimbursement will not be retroactive, though additional specifics are still being worked out.

The administration also plans to distribute an additional 25 million free tests to community sites in order to expand access to at-home tests in underserved communities.

Health officials are also working with vaccine manufacturers to prepare for the worst-case possibility that COVID-19 vaccines will need to be modified to address the new variant as they gather more information.

Still, 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.

Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said enhanced testing requirements make sense from a political perspective, but not necessarily from a public health one, 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.

The administration has leaned heavily into vaccine mandates, hoping to force remaining holdouts to get the shots. But there are limits to that, as evidenced by the recent court decisions stalling Biden’s vaccine rules for businesses and health care workers.

Still, Biden is calling on businesses to push ahead and implement their own vaccination-or-test requirements regardless of the federal government.

"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 needs to take a firmer line on pushing states and cities to implement mask mandates in public settings, especially if omicron is found to spread more rapidly 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 senior administration official reiterated Wednesday that the White House is encouraging states and localities to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on wearing face coverings in areas of substantial transmission of the virus.

Officials haven’t ruled out vaccine requirements for domestic air travel, though Fauci indicated Wednesday that he did not favor them.

As part of the strategy Biden is announcing Thursday, the U.S. is extending the mask requirement for domestic flights, rail travel and public transportation through March 18.

The uncertainty around the emerging omicron variant comes in the midst of the holiday season in the U.S., when Americans are planning celebratory gatherings with family and friends.

Fauci said Wednesday that Americans should feel comfortable foregoing masks when gathering indoors for the holidays with family and friends who they know are vaccinated, but he urged Americans to use face coverings when in public settings where they don’t know the vaccination status of others around them.

[Source: By Morgan Chalfant and Nathaniel Weixel, The Hill, Washington, 02Dic21]

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