White House details next COVID-19 steps

President Biden on Thursday outlined a multi-pronged plan his administration will implement to fight COVID-19 in the winter months that includes an expansion of at-home diagnostic tests, stricter testing rules for international travelers and new efforts to encourage vaccines and boosters.

The steps come as at least three cases of the omicron variant have been found in the U.S. and while the delta variant continues to cause some of the worst spikes of the pandemic, especially in unvaccinated areas of the country.

The surge of infections and presence of a new and largely unknown variant represent the latest threat to the nation’s public health, the economy and Biden’s political standing in the wake of sinking approval ratings and ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

During a speech at the National Institutes of Health, the president sought to brace the public for a rise in COVID-19 cases this winter, urging those eligible to get their vaccine booster shots even as he showed optimism about the country’s continued efforts against the virus.

“My plan I am announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19 and it’s a plan that I think should unite us,” Biden said. “I know COVID-19 has been very divisive in this country. It’s become a political issue, which is a sad, sad, commentary. It shouldn’t be.”

Using existing strategy: Some elements of the administration’s plan were new; a stricter testing policy for international air travelers, family vaccination clinics, and a plan to have private insurance reimburse at-home COVID-19 tests. But largely, the administration is not putting more restrictions or mandates in place and instead is encouraging people to get vaccinated and get booster shots.

Health experts and administration officials say the current vaccines are the best weapon against any variant, and there’s no reason to believe the shots won’t be at least effective against severe disease from omicron.

“While my existing federal vaccination requirements are being reviewed by the courts, this plan does not expand or add to those mandates,” Biden said, calling it “a plan that all Americans can hopefully rally around.”