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To Fight Omicron, Biden to Add Travel Rules, Make At-home Covid Tests Free

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will lay out his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta COVID-19 variants over the winter on Thursday, including free and insurer-funded at-home testing and new requirements for international travelers.

The U.S. government will require private health insurance companies to reimburse their 150 million customers for 100% of the cost of over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests, administration officials said, and make millions more tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.

The administration is urging all eligible Americans to get vaccines and boosters to fight Omicron, which is spreading quickly around the world, and will increase family vaccination sites and expand availability at pharmacies.

Just 58.9% of the total U.S. population, or 196 million people, have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations. The administration says another 100 million are eligible for boosters.

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 efforts to expand testing and shots come as the world faces new threats from the COVID-19 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 president is going to unveil a very robust plan, pull out all the stops to prepare for the winter and to prepare for the new variant,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told MSNBC.

Biden plans to visit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Thursday to announce the strategy at 1:40 p.m. ET (1840 GMT.)

Government agencies including the Health and Human Services Department, Labor Department and Treasury Department will issue guidance on the issue by Jan. 15, the White House said.

The rule will not apply retroactively and does not cover people on public health insurance plans, the official said. The administration plans to distribute 50 million tests to rural clinics and testing sites to help cover those who do not have private insurance and those who do not have insurance at all.

Zients said there would be “tens of millions of tests available around the country free … in addition to the 20,000 locations where people can walk in and get a free-at home test.”

More than 786,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, including 37,000 in November alone. Biden introduced vaccine mandates requiring large companies, federal workers and contractors, and some medical personnel to be vaccinated in September.

On Nov. 30, courts blocked two of them, potentially affecting millions of workers.

Biden also will press companies to require employees to be vaccinated or tested regularly despite legal setbacks, the White House said.

“The president will call on businesses to move forward expeditiously with requiring their workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly. This is especially important given the Omicron variant,” the White House said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Susan Heavey Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker)


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