Biden urges booster jabs amid concerns over Omicron variant

US president announces plan to increase vaccinations, provide millions of free COVID tests, and tighten travel rules.

President Joe Biden announced his administration's updated efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic on December 2, 2021 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

With COVID-19 cases rising in the United States and growing concern over the new Omicron variant, President Joe Biden has announced a series of measures to prevent a dramatic resurgence of coronavirus infections in the US during the colder winter months.

Speaking at the US National Institutes of Health on Thursday, Biden said his administration was taking steps to get more Americans coronavirus booster jabs, as well as increase access to free at-home tests.

“Experts say that COVID-19 cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead this winter, so we need to be ready,” Biden said, announcing an expanded US campaign to promote vaccines.

“More than about 100 million are eligible for boosters but haven’t gotten a booster shot yet,” Biden said. “Starting today, we are making it easier than ever.”

Biden’s announcement comes as new COVID-19 infections in the US have surged to more than 90,000 per day and after the nation reported its first cases of the new Omicron strain of the virus this week.

The emergence of Omicron – which the World Health Organization last week dubbed a “variant of concern” and said poses a “high risk” to the world – has added some urgency to efforts in the US to increase vaccinations.

Already, approximately 63 percent of the US population eligible for vaccines – or some 197 million people – are considered fully vaccinated, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Forty-two million, or nearly 23 percent, have received booster jabs.

But tens of millions of US adults and eligible children remain unvaccinated and vaccination rates vary widely from state to state, with some public health officials warning that a surge in infections could be on the way.

New Omicron cases

White House officials confirmed on Thursday that a second Omicron case had been discovered in a Minnesota man who had attended an anime convention in New York City. A third case of Omicron was identified in Colorado, state health officials  said. The first Omicron case in the US was reported a day earlier in California.

But Biden reiterated comments he made earlier this week, saying that Omicron “is cause for concern, but not panic”.

“We knew there would be cases of Omicron in the United States and it is here. But we have the best tools, the best vaccines, the best medicine and the best scientists in the world. We are going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said.

Biden’s new plan does not include mandated shutdowns of the kind that damaged the US economy earlier in the pandemic.

White House officials said before Biden’s speech that pharmacies would expand the availability of vaccination appointments and communicate with customers via text and email to remind people over age 18 to get booster jabs.

Medicare, a federal healthcare programme for the elderly, will notify 63 million seniors to encourage boosters, while the AARP, a national association for older people, will conduct a communications campaign and offer rides to clinics offering booster jabs.

Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on November 30, 2021 [File: Jae C Hong/AP Photo]

The Biden administration is preparing an order that would require private health insurance companies to cover the costs of at-home coronavirus tests for some 150 million Americans. Congress had previously mandated free testing for all US citizens.

The government also will supply 50 million tests to community and rural health clinics to make free testing more widely available. It also plans to urge school districts to apply specific testing procedures to keep classrooms open.

Travel restrictions

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced plans to tighten testing requirements for international travellers; starting next week, people will need to show a negative COVID-19 test within one day of departure for the US, regardless of their vaccination status or nationality.

“As we head into the winter months and face a new variant, we’re pulling out all the stops to get people maximum protection from this pandemic,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday morning.

“Our objective is to get every eligible person vaccinated,” Psaki said.

“We anticipate there will be more cases. We know that and that is why we will be doing everything we can to fight the virus in the big picture.”

A ban on travel into the US from South Africa and neighbouring nations came into effect on Monday, as countries around the world imposed similar travel restrictions amid fears of Omicron’s spread.

But global leaders and public health experts denounced such bans as unjustified and ineffective, instead encouraging greater vaccine equity and cooperation to prevent the discovery of more coronavirus variants.

Source: Al Jazeera