WASHINGTON – Tighter travel rules, free at-home tests and booster shots are key elements of President Joe Biden’s latest strategy to combat the rapidly evolving coronavirus.
Biden said his plan to get through the winter months, which he promoted during a visit to the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, is one that “all Americans hopefully can rally around.”
“My plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19,” Biden said. “It’s a plan that I think should unite us.”
Biden emphasized that he was not expanding or adding vaccination requirements as the federal courts review his previously announced rules for health care workers and employees of larger companies.
He nodded briefly to efforts by some congressional Republicans to halt federal spending unless Biden repeals the vaccination requirements.
“Some of my friends on the other team are arguing that if I don’t commit that they’ll never be any more mandates, they’re gonna let us default” on the national debt, Biden said. “In the neighborhood I came from in Claymont they’d look at me and say, ‘Go figure.’”
The components of his plan, announced as people begin hunkering down for winter and gathering for the holidays, include:
- Requiring travelers entering the country by air to test negative for the coronavirus within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, instead of within three days.
- Extending through March 18 the requirement that masks be worn on airplanes, trains and public transportation.
- Requiring private health insurance companies to cover 100% of the cost of at-home tests for the coronavirus. Details, such as when this will start, must be worked out.
- Launching a public education campaign to encourage 100 million adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors.
- Biden’s plan was released a day after the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in the USA was announced and as a poll shows rising frustration and waning optimism about the state of COVID-19 vaccinations.
- More than half of adults (58%) say they are “frustrated,” an increase from the 50% who said they felt that way as the initial vaccination effort began in January, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday.
The share of the country that expresses optimism about the status of vaccinations has dropped from 66% to 48%.
The higher frustration and lower optimism are driven mostly by Republicans and, to a lesser extent, by independents.
Even before the omicron variant was confirmed Wednesday, the Biden administration had been working on a coronavirus mitigation strategy for the winter, when people will be indoors more often as well as traveling for the holidays.
The latest variant, which started circulating as people are still getting infected by the delta variant, added to the urgency of the administration’s message that more people need to get vaccinated, including receiving a booster if eligible.
“I keep coming back to that because that’s really the solution to this problem,” presidential health adviser Anthony Fauci said Wednesday after the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in the USA was announced.
The Minnesota Department of Health announced Thursday a resident who had traveled to New York City tested positive for the omicron variant.
Biden’s new strategy includes launching hundreds of one-stop-shop sites for entire families – children through grandparents – to get vaccinated or boosted.
Pharmacies will expand availability of appointments and walk-in vaccinations, spreading the word through text, calls and emails, according to the White House.
Medicare will contact 63 million seniors to encourage booster shots.
The government’s efforts will be boosted by AARP which will offer rides to booster clinics and hold town halls and other educational events.
Though nearly all Americans age 65 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, less than half have gotten a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among all Americans, 70% have had at least one shot, and 21% have been boosted.
A federal appeals court paused Biden’s effort to increase vaccination rates by requiring workers at larger businesses to get vaccinated or be regularly tested.
For the time being, the administration is “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 requirement for the workplace,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the president’s strategy on condition of anonymity.
A majority of workers at larger businesses say their employer requires vaccination (36%) or say they want their employer to require it (17%), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
The public overall is split on Biden’s vaccination requirement for workers. Slightly more say they support (52%) than oppose (45%) it.
The public is also divided over Biden’s handling of the pandemic: 44% approve, and 48% disapprove.
Maureen Groppe has covered Washington for nearly three decades and is a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @mgroppe.