(NewsNation now) – President Joe Biden is set to launch a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shot Thursday as he unveils his winter plans to fight coronavirus and concerns about omicron virus variant.
The plan includes a requirement for private insurance companies to cover the cost of COVID-19 tests at home and a tightening of testing requirements for individuals traveling into the United States, regardless of their vaccination status. But as some other nations close their borders or reintroduce barricades, officials said Biden did not move to impose further restrictions beyond his recommendation that Americans wear masks indoors in public settings.
Biden said Wednesday that the upcoming strategy to be unveiled during a speech at the National Institutes of Health will fight the virus “not with shutdowns or shutdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, tests and more.”
The White House released details of Biden’s plan early Thursday, ahead of the speech. NewsNation will livestream Biden’s remarks in the player above.
The Biden administration has come to regard widespread use of booster shots as its most effective tool to combat COVID-19 this winter. Medical experts say boosters provide improved and more lasting protection against COVID-19, including new variants.
About 100 million Americans are eligible for boosters under current U.S. policy, with more being eligible every day. Convincing those who have already been vaccinated to get another dose, officials believe, will be far easier than vaccinating the approximately 43 million adult Americans who has not received a shot despite widespread public pressure campaigns to roll up their sleeves.
The administration will increase announcements to encourage adults, especially seniors, to get booster doses at local pharmacies, including a town hall campaign through AARP.
The administration’s forthcoming rule requiring private insurance companies to cover home tests is still being worked out, and many details need to be worked out, including under what criteria they will be reimbursed, officials said.
Those insured by Medicare and Medicaid would not be eligible, but the White House said as many as 150 million people with private insurance would see easier and cheaper access to home tests. The administration said it is conducting 50 million COVID-19 tests free of charge for the elderly and other vulnerable groups for collection at senior centers and community centers.
Much is still unknown omicron, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill and whether it can thwart the vaccines.
The campaign comes as scientists race to understand what to do with the omicron, which went from newly discovered to World Health Organization variant of concern list in a matter of days.
One person in California became the first in the United States to have an identified case of the variant, administration officials confirmed Wednesday. The nation’s best expert in infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told reporters that the person was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November 22 and tested positive on Monday. Fauci said the person had been vaccinated but had not received a booster shot and was experiencing “mild symptoms.”
It is not clear where the new variant first appeared, but scientists in South Africa warned the World Health Organization, and it is now seen in travelers arriving in several countries, from Australia to Israel to the Netherlands.
“We have seen a sharp increase in cases over the last 10 days. So far, they have mostly been very mild cases where patients have had flu-like symptoms: dry cough, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pain,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a GP in the province of Gauteng, where 81% of new cases have been reported.
To increase the confusion, The Netherlands announced on Tuesday that the omicron variant was already in the country when South Africa warned the WHO about it last week. The Dutch RIVM Health Institute found omicron in samples from 19 and 23 November.
The executives of Pfizer and Moderna, which manufacture the highly effective mRNA vaccines used in the United States, have both said they expect their formulas to be adjusted to maintain their current level of protection against omicron.
Still, they expect their vaccines to offer protection against serious illness. Faster results from laboratory tests to determine vaccine efficacy are expected later this month.
Internationally, omicron feeds into a resurgence of severe pandemics. Japan is blocking any newly booked trip to the country until the end of the year.
Greece will fine residents over the age of 60 who are not vaccinated. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said EU countries should consider making vaccinations mandatory. And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said he will support a proposal that requires everyone to be vaccinated.