US pushes Covid boosters and at-home tests while extending mask requirements for travel

President Biden announces details for pandemic response amid rise of Omicron variant

Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron

US President Joe Biden on Thursday announced details of his administration's plan to address the Covid-19 pandemic in the winter months as the Omicron variant continues to spread.

The US detected its first case of the Omicron variant on Wednesday and reported another case on Thursday, underscoring that the new “variant of concern” is spreading domestically.

“My plan I'm announcing today pulls no punches,” Mr Biden said from the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.

“The fight against Covid-19 is a plan that I think should unite us. ... This is a moment we can put the divisiveness behind us.”

The White House and Mr Biden shared a multi-step plan, including ensuring free and easy access to vaccines as well as booster doses.

The US is launching a booster public education campaign and making sure employers grant paid time off for immunisation.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that 22.8 per cent of adults in the US have received a booster.

Mr Biden said he will continue to encourage vaccinations for children over the age of 5 and work with the CDC to ensure schools remain safely open, while awaiting federal regulatory approval of vaccines for children under 5.

At-home Covid-19 tests have recently become a more popular option for rapid results but many have balked over the cost. In the autumn, Mr Biden worked with rapid test producers to lower prices but costs are still high compared to other countries.

The president announced on Thursday that — aside from PCR testing — US health insurers will reimburse people for at-home tests they have purchased. The US will also give away tens of millions of at-home tests free of charge at community sites for those without health insurance.

“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 in a briefing on Thursday.

More than 60 winter Covid emergency response teams will be at the ready for deployment to states struggling with any surges in hospital admissions.

There are concerns of another winter surge of cases as people spend more time indoors and begin to travel for the holidays, but this year's winter is different, with both increased vaccinations as well as the presence of a new variant of concern.

“We're entering this winter from a position of strength compared to where America was last winter,” Mr Biden said.

“Last Christmas, fewer than 1 per cent of American adults were fully vaccinated.”

A total of 59.4 per cent of the US population is fully vaccinated, CDC data show — lower than other higher-income countries.

The CDC is reporting a seven-day average of 82,000 daily cases and 800 deaths.

A woman uses her phone outside a Covid-19 sidewalk testing site in New York. Reuters

The president said that the federal face mask mandate — which has also led to an increase in violent in-flight incidents — for domestic travel will be extended from January to mid-March.

He said the US will require international travellers arriving in the US provide a negative Covid-19 taken within one day of departure regardless of vaccination status.

Not much is known about the Omicron variant as global researchers feverishly work to investigate how infectious and deadly it is compared to other strains and whether or not it can evade current vaccines.

The US has the highest confirmed death toll globally, with more than 780,000 fatalities from Covid-19.

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 8:25 PM