(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden called on health providers to expand the availability of coronavirus vaccines and booster shots, aiming to combat a winter surge of infections -- and hold off the new omicron variant.
Biden outlined a new strategy to curb the pandemic in a speech at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, with cases rising in several states. He said his administration would also make free home Covid tests more available by requiring insurers to pay for them and “accelerate efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world.”
“My plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against Covid-19,” he said. He lamented that the virus has “been very divisive” among Americans, observing that “it’s become a political issue.”
“The actions I’m announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against Covid-19,” he said.
Other parts of the strategy include requiring vaccinated air travelers to obtain a negative Covid test closer to their departures and extending a mask mandate for domestic travel.
Biden’s plan, which was in development when omicron emerged last month, comes as he looks to head off the variant’s spread in the U.S. and address case surges in northern and midwestern states. Health officials are also bracing for a spike in cases driven by the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The 7-day average of new U.S. cases was 82,000 as of Tuesday, according to CDC data, down from 94,000 a week earlier -- though testing tends to fall over holidays and cases tend to spike after them, leaving health officials bracing for a new wave heading into Christmas.
About 63% of eligible people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.
Minnesota announced the second known U.S. case of omicron in a person who traveled last month to New York City. The person was vaccinated and experienced only mild symptoms, state health officials said.
Biden’s announcement is in large part a continuation of what the administration is already doing. The plan includes a push for all adults to get booster doses and for vaccine holdouts to get shots.
Biden said he believes the emergence of omicron is persuading some holdouts to reconsider shots.
The administration, however, is shying away from other more strict measures, including requiring a PCR test instead of a less-accurate antigen test to fly to the U.S. Officials considered such a requirement but ultimately decided to allow rapid tests. Vaccinated travelers will have to obtain a negative test one day before their departures, instead of three.
The administration also hasn’t required vaccination for domestic air travel, though White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the option remains under consideration.
Biden’s plan does not include other strategies used in some countries, such as quarantine requirements.
The first U.S. omicron case was revealed Wednesday, in a person in California who’d traveled last month to South Africa.
Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, has said it will take a couple weeks for data to demonstrate the potency of the omnicron variant. Its mutations signal that it’s far more easily transmitted, but it’s not yet clear if it leads to more severe cases.
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