White House to Roll Out Comprehensive Plan for Winter COVID Response

December 2, 2021 by Dan McCue
White House to Roll Out Comprehensive Plan for Winter COVID Response
The White House decorated to celebrate Chrismas and commemorate World Aids Day, Dec. 1, 2021. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is set to roll out a comprehensive plan Monday to step up the nation’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic over the winter months.

The moves, which will be announced during a visit to the National Institutes of Health Monday afternoon, come as the new omicron variant spreads across the globe and the first cases are being reported in the United States.

According to senior administration officials speaking on background to reporters Wednesday night, the plan includes enabling those with private health coverage to get at-home COVID-19 tests reimbursed by insurers.

In a related move the White House will also distribute an additional 25 million at-home tests to community health centers and rural clinics to make them available to those without private insurance.

“We are pulling out all the stops to get people the maximum amount of protection as we head into the winter months,” one of the officials on the call said.

“I wanted to step back and underscore what the President said earlier this week: While this new variant is a cause for concern, it is not a cause for panic. We have the tools we need to confront this variant, to keep making progress in our fight against the virus. And we are using these tools to keep people safe, keep our schools open, and protect our economy,” the official added.

In addition to expanding access to home-testing, the White House plans to tighten travel restrictions, mandating that all international travelers show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of departing for the U.S.

The administration will continue to require masking during international or other public travel — as well as in transportation hubs such as airports or indoor bus terminals — through March 18.

Fines will continue to be doubled from their initial levels for noncompliance with the masking requirements — with a minimum fine of $500 and fines of up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.

Administration officials said Biden will also call on employers to provide paid time off to their employees to get their initial shots or boosters.

Word of the existence of the omicron virus began to spread late last week, just as the nation was enjoying its first “normal” Thanksgiving holiday since the pandemic.

Though little is yet known about the variant and its severity, the World Health Organization named the omicron variant a “variant of concern.”

President Biden responded by assuring the American public that the variant was “a cause for concern, but not panic.” Nevertheless, the administration immediately restricted travel from the southern African nations most impacted by the variant.

Last night a senior White House official previewing the plan for winter said “We have more tools today to fight the omicron variant than we have had to fight previous variants, including delta. 

“Nearly 60 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, booster shots are authorized for all adults, and a vaccine is authorized for kids aged 5 and older. The U.S. is leading the world in vaccinating children, and millions of Americans have already gotten their boosters. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing additional antiviral treatments for when people do get sick,” the official said.

The White House went on to say Thursday actions will ensure we are using these tools as effectively as possible to protect the American people against this variant and to continue to battle the delta variant during the winter months when viruses tend to thrive. 

The specific steps the administration plans to take, laid out in a fact sheet distributed to reporters, include the following:

  • Expanding pharmacy availability through December and reaching out to all eligible customers to get their booster. The government’s pharmacy partners are launching broad-based outreach campaigns to encourage the public to get their boosters, and are sending millions of texts, calls, and emails to eligible customers with information on how to schedule an appointment or walk-in for their booster shot.
  • President Biden will also announce that the pharmacy program will continue to take steps to expand availability, so that adults can continue to receive their booster shots at trusted, convenient pharmacies near them. Federal pharmacy partners will continue to expand access by adding capacity across their network to meet the needs of their local communities. They will also work to ensure equitable access to boosters by offering vaccinations at convenient hours, including evenings and over weekends, so that adults can get boosted at a time that works best for them, the White House said.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services will launch a new public education campaign to encourage adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors who are the most vulnerable, including seniors from communities of color and seniors from underserved communities. 
  • In addition, the White House will be collaborating with AARP on an education campaign focused on getting seniors boosted. These will include holding AARP-sponsored tele-town halls, providing rides to booster shots at local pharmacies, clinics, events, and churches, and co-sponsoring events and a national call center. The hotline number is 1-800-232-0233.
  • As part of a comprehensive plan to get older adults the extra protection they need through a booster, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is launching an education and outreach initiative to get Medicare beneficiaries boosted. 
  • The president will also announce new actions to get more kids aged 5 and older vaccinated and to keep our schools open. These include launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics to get the whole family vaccinated or boosted in one trusted and convenient location.
  • Together, administration officials said, these clinics will offer vaccinations for the whole family — with first shots for parents, teens, and kids, and boosters for those eligible.
  • HRSA will launch Family Vaccination Days with hundreds of community health centers across the country to host family vaccination clinics throughout December. Over two in three shots at community health centers are administered to people of color. FEMA will launch Family Mobile Vaccination Clinics, deploying sites, staff, and support to states across the country that need help – beginning with its first deployments to Washington and New Mexico. 
  • The administration will also require Medicaid to pay health care providers to talk to families about getting their kids vaccinated. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program provide health insurance coverage to over 40% of all children in the United States and are a significant source of coverage for children of color. Today’s action will help expand access to individualized medical advice in all of our communities and give families the support they need to engage with trusted community providers, the White House said.
  • The White House is also calling for a review of school COVID-19 prevention policies to avoid closures of entire classrooms or schools when there is a positive case. To make sure schools can remain safely open: The CDC will release findings on quarantine and testing policies in schools and the administration will issue a new “Safe School Checklist” to give schools a clear game plan for how to get as many of their staff and students vaccinated as possible.
  • The White House is also set to deploy additional rapid response teams to states battling rising infection rates. To date it has deployed over 2,000 personnel, including 1,300 clinical providers; surged over 3,200 ventilators, ambulances and other critical supplies; and shipped over 2.3 million courses of monoclonal antibody treatments. The plan is to make at least 60 and likely more Winter COVID emergency response team deployments available to states.

The omicron variant, first spotted by scientists in southern Africa but now present in more than 30 countries including the United States, has mutations that scientists say may allow it to spread more quickly and cause more breakthrough infections in vaccinated or previously infected people.

Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters Wednesday that the first case of the omicron variant in the U.S. was a traveler from California who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive on Nov. 29. 

Fauci said the person was vaccinated but had not received a booster shot and was experiencing “mild symptoms.”

“We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” Fauci said.

“I think what’s happening now is another example of why it’s important for people to get vaccinated. But also boosting. Boosting is very important,” he added.

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