Updated: 2 p.m.
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy over-the-counter, at-home rapid tests for the coronavirus — one of a series of steps the White House is planning in order to encourage better detection and prevention of COVID-19 this winter.
Speaking at the National Institutes of Health, Biden said the measures do not include shutdowns or lockdowns, and instead focus on "widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing."
"The actions that I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind," Biden said. His last major set of COVID announcements included a series of vaccination mandates, which have sparked lawsuits and political opposition from Republicans.
There was no single blockbuster announcement and no major new mandate or target for rapidly increasing the number of vaccinated Americans. Instead, Biden's plan to fight the coronavirus this winter is a battle of increments: efforts to get booster shots into the arms of all adults and especially seniors, setting up family vaccine clinics, offering more free and lower-cost at-home testing options, stockpiling antiviral pills and readying strike teams to help states with outbreaks.
He outlined the new steps on the day after the first U.S. case of the omicron variant was discovered in California. A second case was revealed Thursday in Minnesota. Officials are concerned that the variant could spread more easily than previous strains.
In an interview with NPR, Natalie Quillian, the deputy White House COVID-19 response coordinator, described the plan this way: "The bottom line is we are really pulling out all the stops to get Americans the maximum protection as we head into the winter months and as we face this new [omicron] variant."
Biden laments that the virus has become a political issue
Biden cited a survey that showed that 30 percent of people who said they were not vaccinated will now consider getting vaccinated because of concerns abut the omicron variant. "I hope that's true," Biden said.
Biden called it "a sad, sad commentary" that COVID-19 has become a political issue and expressed hope that as the nation moves into the winter and faces the challenges of a new variant, "this is a moment where we can put the divisiveness behind us."
Biden also noted that the nation is "in a position of strength" this winter compared to last year, with most schools open, and most people having been vaccinated.
Home tests will be reimbursable, just like other coronavirus tests
One of the new elements will be requiring private health insurers to reimburse people who buy at-home tests — just as insurers are currently required to cover tests done at pharmacies and labs. This will reduce costs for more than 150 million Americans with private insurance, once the official rule is finalized and put in place in the new year.
"We think this is the right policy," Quillian told NPR. "We also think it's the most economical policy, because the cost of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any rapid home test."
For people without private insurance, the government will buy another 25 million tests to give to community health centers and rural clinics. In September, the White House spurred manufacturing of at-home tests with $3 billion in spending, which included 25 million tests for underserved communities.
"Our supply of these rapid tests has quadrupled this month from where we were at the end of summer," Quillian said. "We've put a ton of resources into this."
There will be some new rules for travelers
The administration also will require that all travelers coming into the United States be tested for the coronavirus a day before departure for their trip using a viral test. This will apply to Americans returning home, whether they're vaccinated or unvaccinated, as well as to foreign travelers.
But there are no new requirements for testing after arrival in the U.S. or for quarantining after returning from a trip.
The administration will extend the requirement to wear masks on planes and public transportation to March 18.
You're going to see a lot more ads for booster shots
The White House also wants to try to increase the number of people getting booster shots. In total, 100 million adults have yet to get a booster shot.
So far, only half of U.S. seniors have received a booster shot, something that the administration has emphasized will help protect them against the new variant. The shots have been available to seniors since September.
The administration will work with pharmacies and the AARP on outreach campaigns to encourage people to make appointments, and will offer clinics on evenings and weekends. The government will also launch family vaccination days so that adults can get their booster shots while getting their kids vaccinated.
"I think for working families, for busy moms and dads, this is a really hopefully convenient way where they can go get their booster and their kids' shots all at the same time," Quillian said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also getting ready to release information on "test to stay" policies that let kids exposed to COVID-19 stay in school as long as they repeatedly test negative for the virus, rather than recommending mandatory 14-day quarantines.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
An earlier version of this story said travelers will need to test within 24 hours of leaving for a trip into the United States. However, the requirement is better described as a day before departure.
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