U.S. President Joe Biden is due to announce Thursday stricter coronavirus testing requirements for international travelers entering the country, an extension of mask requirements for people on planes, trains and buses, and a push to deliver millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to other nations in the coming months.
Biden is using an address at the National Institutes of Health to lay out his administration’s COVID-19 plans as the country heads into the winter months with its first confirmed case of the newly detected omicron variant.
The White House said in a statement ahead of Biden’s remarks that travelers will be expected to be required to get a negative COVID-19 test within one day of their departure for the United States, a change from the current three-day policy. The rule will apply to both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.
The mandate for wearing masks on public transportation and in airports was due to expire on January 18, with an extension expected to go into March.
The White House statement said the Biden administration is pledging to deliver 200 million more vaccine doses abroad during the next 100 days.In the U.S., there will be public education and outreach efforts to encourage people to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots as well as family vaccination clinics.
Another part of the administration’s plan is to make at-home testing kits free for those covered by private health insurance plans.And for U.S. states that are experiencing a spike in infections, emergency response teams will be made available to help strained hospitals.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser, stressed the need for people to get vaccinated, including booster shots, as he spoke to reporters at the White House on Wednesday about the omicron variant.
He said there are 60 million people in the United States who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine but have not, and that there is every reason to believe the rise in immune response provided by booster shots will help prevent severe disease if someone is infected by the omicron variant.
“I think what’s happening now is another example of why it’s important for people to get vaccinated who’ve not been vaccinated,” Fauci said.
The first confirmed U.S. case of someone infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in the Western state of California, U.S. health officials said Wednesday.
The person returned to the U.S. from a trip to South Africa on November 22 and tested positive on Monday, Fauci told reporters.
Fauci said the person had mild coronavirus symptoms, was self-quarantining and was improving. The person was fully vaccinated, he said, but had yet to get a booster shot.
The omicron case adds the U.S. to the growing list of at least 24 countries where the variant has been discovered.
The U.S. joins a growing list of nations that have imposed some form of travel restrictions or outright bans on foreign travelers since the omicron variant was first identified November 24 by scientists in South Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
Japan is banning reentry of all foreign nationals with Japanese residency if they are traveling from South Africa or nine other southern African nations beginning Thursday.
South Korea will require all arrivals to the country to quarantine for 10 days, and all travelers coming into the country will be tested for the omicron variant. Those rules go into effect Friday for two weeks.
Along with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Nigeria also reported their first cases of the omicron variant. The state-run Saudi Press Agency reported Wednesday that a Saudi citizen tested positive after traveling from a country in north Africa, while Nigerian authorities say its first cases of omicron were detected in samples collected back in October from two travelers who had arrived from South Africa.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is recommending that people who are not fully vaccinated and who have underlying conditions, such as diabetes, that put them at increased risk of becoming severely ill or dying if they contract COVID-19 should postpone traveling to areas with high rates of community transmission.
The WHO also declared that blanket travel bans imposed by countries will not prevent the global spread of the new variant but will instead “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.