As cases rise in the colder months and amid concerns of a new COVID-19 variant arriving in the U.S., President Joe Biden announced a new plan Thursday for a winter coronavirus strategy that includes making at-home rapid tests free, extending the mask requirement on public transit and requiring more stringent testing protocols for all international travelers.
Biden pitched the nine-point plan from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, as one that can unite the country.
"I know COVID-19 has been divisive. It's become a political issue, which is a sad, sad commentary," he said. "Now as we move into the winter and face the challenges of the new variant, this is a moment we can put the divisiveness behind us, I hope. This is a moment when we can do what we haven't been able to do enough of through this whole pandemic, get the nation to come together, unite the nation in a common purpose, to fight it and protect our economic recovery."
"And while my existing federal vaccination requirements are being reviewed by the courts, this plan does not expand or add to those mandates," Biden said, adding it's a plan "all Americans can hopefully rally around, and it should get bipartisan support, in my humble opinion."
The latest approach from the White House does not include more aggressive measures such as requiring testing for domestic flights or mandating testing for passengers after their arrival in the U.S.
To allow for free rapid tests, senior administration officials say the more than 150 million Americans with private insurance will be able to submit for reimbursement to their insurance companies through the same rule that allows tests on site to be covered by insurance.
"So that if you're one of the 150 million Americans with private health insurance, next month, your plan will cover at-home tests," Biden said.
To reach uninsured Americans and those on Medicare or Medicaid, the Biden administration will send 50 million at-home tests to 20,000 federal sites around the country to be handed out for free.
"The bottom line, this winter, you'll be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind," the president added.
The Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor and Treasury Department will put out guidance by Jan. 15 to determine exactly how many tests will be covered and at what frequency, the plan said, and it will not retroactively cover tests already purchased.
Senior administration officials said they are confident in the supply of rapid tests to meet the possible demand of Americans who will now be able to get them at no cost.
"Supply will quadruple this month from where it was at the end of summer, so we're doing a ton to ramp up all tests, but specifically a big focus on ramping up these at-home tests," a senior administration official said on a call with reporters Wednesday night.
The extension of mask mandates on public transportation, including airplanes, rails and buses, will now go through March 18, per the plan, and tighter requirements for travel into the United States will go into place early next week.
The new travel rules call for proof of a negative COVID test within one day of travel to the U.S. for all passengers, regardless of their vaccination status or nationality.
The plan also puts a heavy emphasis on booster shots, which have had a sluggish uptake in the U.S. but experts urge for added protection in the face of the new omicron variant and its many unknowns.
A concerned Biden on Thursday said more than 100 million Americans are eligible for their free booster shot now -- but haven't gotten one yet.
"If you're older than 18 and got vaccinated before June 2, six months has gone by. Go get your booster now. Go get it now," Biden said.
Pharmacies will expand locations and hours to administer booster shots through December, according to the plan, and the Biden administration will up its outreach efforts through a public education campaign aimed at seniors and new family vaccination clinics that can be a one-stop shop for kids vaccines, adult vaccines and booster shots.
Biden also raises the possibility that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will no longer suggest that schoolchildren quarantine for 14 days after exposure, instead relying on the popular "test-to-stay" policy that allows kids to keep attending school so long as they test negative each day.
"The CDC has been studying approaches to quarantine and testing, including looking at the science and data of how they may keep school communities safe. CDC will release their findings on these approaches in the coming weeks," according to the plan.
In all, the new strategy comes as cases continue to rise, a combination of colder weather pushing people indoors together and vaccine immunity waning among people who got the shot more than six months ago and haven't yet gotten a booster.
There are also new concerns about omicron, which has more mutations than previous variants but is still mostly a mystery -- from how transmissible it is to its capability to cause more severe disease or evade vaccines.
On Monday, Biden reassured Americans that his administration is taking every precaution to protect the public from the omicron variant and that he doesn't expect this to be the "new normal."
"It's a new variant that's cause for concern, but not a cause for panic," the president said. "And we're gonna fight this with science and speed. We're not going to fight it with chaos and confusion, and we believe we can deal with it."
The administration's ban on incoming travel from eight countries in southern Africa went into effect this week after the variant was first detected in Botswana. It has since been found in nearly 30 countries, including in the U.S. on Wednesday.
Over the past year, Biden has focused his efforts to defeat COVID on increasing vaccinations and testing.
When the country didn't meet his goal of 70% of all adults vaccinated with at least one shot by July, and as cases spiked again from the delta variant's arrival over the summer, Biden moved forward on vaccine mandates.
Though the mandates were supposed to apply to all federal government employees, health care workers and employees of large private companies, the rollout has been met with lawsuits and lax deadlines.
The mandate for government employees initially was supposed to be implemented in late November, but the government has delayed firing employees who refused to comply until after the holidays.
Still, 92% of federal employees had their first dose as of last week.
The mandates on health care workers and employees of large companies have faced legal challenges that halted them until a decision in higher courts later this winter.
But many hospitals and companies have gone ahead with mandates on their own, often successfully.
The nation's public health experts have continued to push vaccines and boosters as the best defense against the variant, even as they wait for more data.
"We don't know everything we need to know about the omicron variants, but we know that vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself from severe illness and complications from all known SARS-CoV-2 variants to date," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, 71% of adults over 18 and almost 60% of the entire American population are currently fully vaccinated. Nearly 100 million adults who are eligible for boosters have yet to get them.
Reflecting on the past year, Biden on Monday said, "we're in a very different place" as we enter December, noting that vaccinations were just being rolled out and the majority of schools were still closed in 2020.
"Last Christmas, our children were at risk without a vaccine. This Christmas, we have safe and effective vaccines for children ages 5 and older, with more than 19 million children and counting now vaccinated," Biden said.