Biden’s winter COVID plan hopes to leave no American behind
As he explained his strategy, Biden hoped to remind people why they elected him. Plus: The supplements I hope will deepen all the sleep I plan to catch up on during my upcoming holiday break.
Hours after the Minnesota Department of Health announced that its lab discovered another case of the Omicron variant in a resident returning to the state from New York City, President Joe Biden laid out his administration's strategy to fight both the virus that's disrupted our lives for two years and a variant we just learned about last week.
Since the presidential campaign last year, Biden has positioned himself as a calm in the storm. And he’s confident that he can manage competing crises, keep our current reality in perspective and rise above attacks from conservative politicians and pundits and amid sinking public opinion approval from many of the communities that elected him into office. This vibe was demonstrated during his speech before a crowd of socially distanced doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Since day one of my administration, we’ve been doing everything we can to beat this virus. And that’s what we have to keep doing. That’s how we keep our country and our businesses and our schools open,” Biden said. “Even with the pandemic, we’ve generated record job creation — 5.6 million new jobs since January 20, more than any president in American history. We’re on the track to the fastest economic growth in four decades.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki echoed her boss’s words during her daily briefing with reporters. “Our view and belief and the belief of our medical team is that we have the tools to keep people safe. We’re executing on a robust plan that builds off all the actions we have taken to date,” she said. “We are not starting from scratch here.”
The White House’s strategy focuses on five areas: Boosters for all adults, pediatric vaccinations to keep kids safe and schools open, strengthening travel requirements, surge response and testing.
If you’re one of the 150 million people with private insurance, good news: health insurers must now reimburse you 100 percent of the cost of one of the at least eight at-home tests currently on the market. (This is in addition to the PCR tests people get at their doctor’s offices that private health insurers already cover.) The White House said the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury are working through the rule-making and guidance on exactly how many tests and at what frequency will be covered, but did note that the reimbursements wouldn’t be retroactive. And if you’re without private insurance, the administration announced the distribution of 50 million free at-home tests to community sites, such as health centers and rural clinics.
As I reported in Monday’s newsletter, the administration considers Omicron a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” Much of its focus is still on vaccines, including getting first shots into the arms of unvaccinated people and boosters for those who are fully vaccinated. “All of this is confusing to a lot of people,” he said. “If you are vaccinated but still worried about the new variant, get your booster,” the president said earlier this week. “If you aren’t vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot.”
The White House estimates nearly 100 million Americans are eligible for boosters and have not yet gotten their booster shot. Biden’s plan will expand the availability of appointments and walk-ins at pharmacies. These stores will send millions of texts, calls and emails encouraging and reminding people to get boosted. Medicare will also send notices to more than 60 million seniors nudging them to do the same. And the AARP will collaborate with the White House to help get seniors boosted. “This will include town halls, rides to booster clinics and education events across the country, focusing our hardest-hit and highest-rick older Americans,” a senior administration official said.
Biden’s team is touting the launch of nationwide family vaccination clinics as one-stop shops for kids, parents and grandparents to get shots. The senior administration said that these clinics will be held at community health centers and other trusted locations to make sure they’re as accessible as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also reviewing school COVID prevention policies to keep schools open if there is a positive case. And the White House developed a new safety checklist to support schools in getting as many students and staff vaccinated. The government will also start paying Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program health care providers to promote the vaccines and close the racial equity gap. “Together, these programs cover nearly half of all children in this country, including a significant number of Black and brown children,” the senior administration official said.
Biden announced that his administration will make 60 emergency response teams available to states and increase its national volunteer emergency medical response corps to support communities in need. The surge response teams have already helped 27 states and two territories respond to the Delta surge with 2,000 personnel, over 3,200 ventilators and other supplies, and over 2.3 million doses of antibody treatments.
And early starting next week, all international travelers will be required to test negative within one day of their departure to the United States — regardless of nationality or vaccination status. (Foreign travelers are already required to be fully vaccinated and submit to pre- and post-departure testing mandates.) “Our doctors believe tightening that testing requirement for pre-departure will help catch more potential cases of people who may be positive before they fly into this country,” the White House senior administration official said. “And so, we think now is the right time to do it, and we can implement it very quickly.”
Over in the Senate, Republicans are threatening to shut the government down to protest existing vaccine requirements and freeze funding for some of the actions Biden outlined earlier. They’re attempting to force Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to include an amendment to defund the mandate on businesses in the bill that would fund the government through mid-February. (The government would shut down if Congress doesn't pass the legislation by Friday night.) The irony of the GOP’s demands? They want to apply the simple-majority-vote threshold to their amendment that they oppose for Democratic priorities like voting rights and police reform.
Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters in Charlotte, North Carolina that vaccine requirements shouldn't be partisan in a swipe towards Republicans. They obviously won't care since zigging when the Democrats zag has become an organizing principle for the GOP.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was much more forceful than the VP in her assessment. “The obstacle to moving forward with most of what we want to do lies in the Senate and the person of [Senate Republican Leader] Mitch McConnell,” she said during her weekly press conference. “How do they explain to the public that they're shutting down government because they don’t want people to get vaccinated?”
President Biden said no when he was asked if he thought the Republican shutdown caucus would be successful. “I don't believe that will happen,” he said, citing conversations with McConnell and Schumer and the plan they have in place to keep government open.
So as of now the White House is moving full steam ahead though, led by Biden and his trademark optimism. “We moved forward in the face of COVID-19 and the Delta variant. And we’ll move forward in the face of the Omicron variant as well,” the president said at the end of his remarks at the NIH today. “And we’ll do it by keeping the faith and doing it together as the United States of America.”
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