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U.S. Omicron plan: boosters, free at-home tests, tighter travel rules

·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: A vial and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed United States' flag and words "Omicron SARS-CoV-2" in this illustration taken

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Thursday sought to ramp up its pandemic response following U.S. detection of the Omicron coronavirus variant this week, making at-home COVID-19 tests available free of charge, accelerating its push for booster shots and tightening rules for travelers.

Below are some of the key measures in the plan, released by the White House and unveiled by President Joe Biden at the National Institutes of Health:

FREE AT-HOME, OVER-THE-COUNTER TESTS

Private health insurance companies will be required to reimburse customers for the cost of over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests, the White House said, with the administration issuing federal guidance by Jan. 15.

For the uninsured, at-home tests will be made available at no charge at community testing sites.

At least eight over-the-counter rapid antigen tests have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including Abbott Laboratories' BinaxNOW, OraSure Technologies Inc's InteliSwab, ACON Laboratories' FlowFlex and Ellume's home test. Other manufacturers include Quidel Corp, Becton Dickinson and Co, Celltrion Inc, iHealth Labs Inc and InBios International Inc.

Health insurers already cover the more accurate PCR tests done through laboratories that are not FDA-approved for at-home use.

WIDER PUSH FOR BOOSTER SHOTS

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services along with pharmacy companies will launch a public information campaign to encourage booster shots, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) revised guidance this week recommending all adults get a booster.

Pharmacies will reach out to customers by text and e-mail and take steps to increase vaccine availability, including weekend and evening hours, according to the White House.

The government's Medicare insurance program for those over 65 and the disabled and the Medicaid program for low-income people will also make outreach efforts to encourage shots among the millions who rely on them.

Federal government employees will receive paid leave to get their booster shots, Biden said, urging private employers to do the same for their workers.

TIGHTER TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS

The U.S. CDC will require inbound international passengers be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure, regardless of their vaccination status, sources separately told Reuters. Mask requirements on airplanes, trains and public transportation vehicles will be extended through March 18.

The new one-day testing requirement would apply to U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals and could take effect as early as next week.

CDC officials also have ordered airlines to disclose passenger names and other information for those who have recently been in eight southern African countries that identified early Omicron cases and will provide it to local and state public health agencies.

MORE FAMILY VACCINATION CLINICS

The administration will launch hundreds of family vaccination clinics nationwide that will allow eligible parents, grandparents and children to get initial vaccines and booster shots with a "one-stop-shop," the White House said.

Community health centers will host the clinics throughout December. Mobile health clinics will also be deployed across the country, starting in Washington and New Mexico, according to the plan.

Retail pharmacies, including CVS Health Corp and Rite Aid Corp will start allowing family-based appointment scheduling, the White House said.

INCREASING TREATMENT SUPPLIES

The White House said any new COVID-19 treatment pills approved by U.S. regulators would be "equitably accessible to all Americans, regardless of their income or their zip code," adding that it was working to secure 13 million doses of antiviral courses.

Biden, speaking at NIH, said some doses already have been secured.

(Reporting by Susan HeaveyEditing by Bill Berkrot)

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