To fight Omicron, Biden sets new travel rules and adds free COVID tests

AFP

President Joe Biden has laid out his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants over the winter, including free and insurer-funded at-home COVID-19 testing and new requirements for international travellers.

The US government will require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests, administration officials said, and make 50 million tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.

Reimbursement for tests will not kick in, however, until January, missing the crucial holiday period when many families and groups gather indoors.

"We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, while warning that infections will rise this winter.

"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.

The administration is urging all eligible Americans to get vaccinated or obtain booster shots to fight the virus and protect against Omicron, which is spreading quickly around the world. It plans to increase family vaccination sites and expand availability at pharmacies.

Less than 60 per cent of the US population, or 196 million people, have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations. The administration says an additional 100 million are eligible for boosters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said all vaccinated adults should get a booster in light of waning protection over time and the emergence of Omicron.

The United States also plans to require inbound international passengers to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure, regardless of vaccination status. Mask requirements on airplanes, trains and public transportation vehicles will be extended to March 18.

The new plan will also improve care for those who get COVID-19, tripling the number of “surge response teams” that provide extra staff at hospitals that are overrun with patients to 60 from its current level, Biden said.

It will speed more medications "recommended by real doctors not conspiracy theorists," he added.

The efforts to expand testing and shots come as the world faces new threats from the Omicron variant, and the United States confronts a heavily entrenched, politically fueled anti-vaccination culture.

Fears about the variant have pounded financial markets and created doubts about the speed of the global economic recovery as the pandemic rages on.

The White House is considering further restrictions and ways to boost testing and vaccinations that will depend on the severity of the variant, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

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