To fight Omicron, Biden sets new travel rules, adds free COVID testing

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Thursday outlined his strategy to tackle the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants over the winter, including free home-based COVID-19 tests funded by insurers and new requirements for international travelers.

The U.S. government will require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter and at-home COVID-19 tests, administration officials said, and will make 50 million tests available free of charge in rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.

However, reimbursement for testing will not begin until January, missing the crucial holiday period when many families and groups congregate indoors.

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“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden told the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, while warning that infections would increase this winter.

“The actions I am announcing are those that all Americans can support and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

The administration is urging all eligible Americans to get vaccinated or get boosters to fight the virus and protect themselves against Omicron, which is spreading rapidly around the world. He plans to increase family vaccination sites and expand availability in pharmacies.

Less than 60% of the American population, or 196 million people, have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among rich countries. The administration says an additional $ 100 million is eligible for the recalls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said all vaccinated adults should be boosted given the waning protection over time and the emergence of Omicron. Read more

The United States is also planning to require incoming international passengers to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure, regardless of their vaccination status. Mask requirements on planes, trains and public transport vehicles will be extended until March 18. read more

The new plan will also improve care for those who receive COVID-19, tripling the number of “emergency response teams” providing additional staff in hospitals that are overflowing with patients to 60 from its current level, Biden said.

This will further accelerate drugs “recommended by real doctors and not by conspiracy theorists,” he added.

The efforts to expand testing and shooting come as the world faces new threats from the Omicron variant, and the United States faces a strongly entrenched and politically fueled anti-vaccination culture.

Fears over the variant have pounded financial markets and created doubts about the speed of the global economic recovery as the pandemic rages on.

US President Joe Biden talks about his administration’s plan to fight coronavirus disease (COVID-19) with the emergence of the Omicron variant, during his visit to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, United States , December 2, 2021. REUTERS / Kévin Lamarque

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The White House is considering new restrictions and ways to step up testing and vaccinations that will depend on the severity of the variant, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

INSURERS LOOK FOR CLARITY

Psaki told reporters earlier Thursday that the Biden administration will clarify whether private health insurance companies will get money from the government to reimburse customers for over-the-counter testing when it issues guidance on the issue of here mid-January.

However, a White House official said later on Thursday that the government would not reimburse private health insurers for the cost of home tests. Insurers were required to cover diagnostic testing for COVID-19 “without any cost-sharing requirement during the public health emergency,” the official said.

Additional free tests at health clinics should be available as early as this month, Psaki said.

Biden said free tests would be available for pickup at thousands of convenient locations for those without private insurance.

“In short: this winter you will be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have peace of mind,” he said.

The largest employer health insurers in the United States are Cigna Corp (CI.N), UnitedHealth Group (UNH.N), and CVS Health Corp (CVS.N). Currently, insurers are reimbursed a fixed amount by the government for most medically necessary COVID-19 tests performed in laboratories and doctor’s offices.

Kristine Grow, spokesperson for the insurance industry lobby AHIP, said the industry is working with the administration to ensure that the impact of any test plan is fully understood. Areas of concern include price hikes on these tests, higher premiums, and clear rules and advice for implementation, she said.

Morningstar analyst Julie Utterback said she sees the government’s plan as a change in the potential testing site, rather than a significant increase in costs for health insurers, assuming home testing can be accepted as valid.

“To control the spread of the virus from a political point of view, I see the logic of trying to keep infected people at home instead of forcing them to interact with people outside their home when they show symptoms. “said Utterback.

Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel said the strategy could come at a significant cost to health insurers, with the coverage requirement lasting until the first half of the year.

More than 786,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, including 37,000 in November alone.

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Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reports by Susan Heavey, Nandita Bose, Trevor Hunnicutt, Ahmed Aboulenein and Amruta Khandekar; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bill Berkrot and Peter Cooney

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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