03 Dec 2021, 10:34

Biden opens winter battle against Covid as US braces for Omicron

  WASHINGTON, Dec 3, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - US President Joe Biden announced
Thursday a winter campaign against Covid-19, with new testing requirements
for travelers and a surge in vaccination efforts as the new Omicron variant
threatens to revive the pandemic.

  Biden has brought steady leadership after the chaotic Donald Trump years,
but the mutating coronavirus continues to defy him, helping drive his
approval ratings deep underwater.

  Urging the nation -- in particular his political rivals -- to unite behind
the strategy, Biden unveiled a raft of actions designed to tamp down Covid-19
in the coming months, as the latest Omicron variant spreads worldwide.

  "It's a plan that I think should unite us," Biden said, speaking from the
headquarters of the National Institutes of Health in a Washington suburb.

  "I know Covid-19 has been very divisive. In this country, it's become a
political issue," he added. "A sad, sad commentary. It shouldn't be, but it
has been."

  Ten cases of the new strain have so far been confirmed in the United
States, including five in New York announced Thursday evening by state
Governor Kathy Hochul, one in Los Angeles county and one in the Pacific
island state of Hawaii.

  The Hawaii case and one in Minnesota both involved residents with no recent
international travel history, signaling the strain is already circulating
inside the country.

  "This is a case of community spread. The individual has no history of
travel," the Hawaii Health Department said.

  Biden's updated actions include the requirement that all inbound
international travelers be tested within one day of flying.

  This will apply to all travelers, both American and foreign, regardless of
vaccination status, a US official said.

  For domestic travelers, Biden will announce he is extending a mask mandate
on airplanes, trains and other public transport through mid-March.

  White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters testing and vaccine
requirements could eventually be added to domestic flights too. "Nothing is
off the table," she said.

  The barrage of measures is partly meant to reassure Americans that Biden is
doing everything possible to prevent the pandemic from derailing the
impressive US economic recovery -- and the winter holidays.

  In addition to his public rollout, Biden penned a column for the Friday
edition of the large-circulation USA Today national newspaper to assuage
Americans' "unease" about the new variant and Covid in general.

  "We will beat it back with science and speed, not chaos and confusion --
just as we did in the spring and again with the more powerful delta variant
in the summer and fall," the president wrote.

  Biden and his aides have recently stressed there will be no return to mass

  But the White House also faces the challenge that many Americans are not
receptive to Biden's appeals for collective action.

  Despite ever-more creative attempts to encourage people to get their shots,
about 40 percent of the country have yet to be fully vaccinated, and booster
rates are lagging too.

  - Nationwide campaign -

  Biden said a surge in outreach on vaccines and booster shots was being
launched, with a nationwide campaign targeting recipients of Medicare public
health care. The government will team up with AARP, a large lobbying group
representing people aged 50 and over.

  At the other end of the age scale, the Biden administration will try to
ensure that schools do not return to mass lockdowns.

  "We're expanding our efforts to vaccinate children, ages five and up," said
Biden. "For any parent worried about the Omicron variant or the Delta
variant, get your child vaccinated at one of the 35,000 locations in the

  In another bolstering of existing policies, the White House will encourage
the use of home testing kits by announcing that health insurance must cover
100 percent of the cost.

  For those without health insurance, there will be an increase in the
availability of free kits.

  The kits currently sell for around $25, as opposed to being available
either for free or at nominal costs among peer nations in Europe.

  Meanwhile, the White House stressed that the administration's restrictions
on travelers from eight southern African countries over growing Omicron fears
was not a "punishment" to those nations but a safety measure.

  "We of course are in close touch at a diplomatic level with leaders in
these countries about the steps we're taking," Psaki said, referring to the
ban imposed last week on US arrivals from South Africa, Botswana and other

  "It's not meant to be a punishment," she added. "It is steps recommended by
our public health officials and medical experts in order to delay the spread
of a variant."

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