President Joe Biden on Thursday will announce a plan to combat the omicron variant, including a campaign to expand booster shots, policies to reimburse Americans for at-home Covid-19 tests, and stricter travel rules.
Biden's plan to combat omicron
As part of the plan, HHS will partner with AARP to launch a public relations campaign to encourage more seniors to get Covid-19 booster shots. The administration's plan will also include an effort to launch family vaccination clinics nationwide, at which every member of a family can receive a Covid-19 vaccine.
HHS will also be issuing a formal guidance on Jan. 15 requiring private insurers to reimburse customers for at-home Covid-19 tests. Currently, there are eight at-home tests authorized for use by FDA. Two of the most popular, made by Abbott and Ellume, retail for $23.99 and $38.99 respectively, STAT News reports.
White House officials also said they intend to increase production of at-home tests through a recent $3 billion investment in their production. "We are doing a ton to ramp up all tests, but specifically, a big focus on ramping up these at-home tests," a senior administration official told the Washington Post.
Senior officials also told the New York Times the administration will distribute 25 million additional at-home Covid-19 tests to community health centers and rural health clinics, intending to make them more easily accessible to people who are not covered by private insurance.
Biden also intends to pledge the deployment of more than 60 emergency response teams nationwide to respond to the spread of the omicron variant, STAT News reports. These teams will include more than 20 "monoclonal antibody strike teams" to help administer monoclonal antibody treatments, as well as more than 15 "CDC expert deployments" to assist state and local health officials in tracking outbreaks of Covid-19.
The administration will also tighten travel rules, requiring international travelers coming to the United States receive a negative Covid-19 test within one day of departure, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status. Previously, travelers to the United States who were fully vaccinated had to test negative for Covid-19 within three days of their departure.
The administration will also extend masking requirements for passengers on airplanes, public transportation, and trains, as well as in transportation hubs. Initially those requirements were slated to expire in January, but they will now be extended through at least March 18. The fine for violating the requirements will also increase to $500, the Post reports.
Charity Dean, a former California health official and CEO of the Public Health Company, said having free access to rapid Covid-19 tests "would be a game-changer."
"If we had rapid tests at every door for every school, every movie theater, any person can go and get them—just like they can in many other countries—it would enable people to have personal responsibility and know when they're infectious," Dean said.
Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, said having people go through their insurer to receive reimbursement for an at-home Covid-19 test can be a cumbersome process. He suggested that instead, "we should just subsidize them and make it incredibly cheap." Del Rio noted that, in Britain, rapid Covid-19 tests are free, and in Germany, they cost roughly $1.
As for the administration's travel rules, Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist who previously advised the Biden administration on Covid-19 response, said she was displeased with the administration's focus on travel restrictions internationally rather than domestically.
"When you think about Texas, it's the size of France—and it operates as its own country in many respects," Gounder said. "If you're really trying to prevent spread of dangerous variants, you should be providing similar standards across the board." (Florko, STAT News, 12/2; Stolberg, New York Times, 12/2; Chen, Axios, 12/2; Diamond et al., Washington Post, 12/2; Groppe, USA Today, 12/2; Gonzalez, Axios, 12/1)