Promising to “pull no punches” in America’s battle with Covid-19, President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled a White House-led push to redouble the federal government’s vaccination and testing efforts ahead of what could be a tough winter fight against the delta and omicron variants of Sars-CoV-2.
Speaking at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Mr Biden called on Americans to come together in order to face the dual challenges of colder winter temperatures – which by necessity force people inside where respiratory viruses spread more easily – and the newly discovered omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“This is a moment we can put the devices behind us … a moment we can do what we haven’t been able to do enough of through this whole pandemic: Get the nation to come together, unite the nation in a common purpose to fight this virus to protect one another, to protect our economic recovery, and to think of it in terms of literally a patriotic responsibility rather than somehow you’re denying people their basic rights,” he said.
Many of the vaccination initiatives Mr Biden’s administration has undertaken to fight the spread of Covid-19 in recent months have been met with legal challenges from Republican state officials whose constituents have embraced vaccine refusal as a way to show their opposition to Mr Biden’s presidency. Two separate attempts to mandate vaccines for healthcare workers and workers at large employers are on hold pending legal challenges.
But the president stressed that the White House’s winter Covid plans don’t involve any further vaccine mandates, and are based on recommendations from top scientists and members of his Covid-19 response team. The president called it “a plan that all Americans hopefully can rally around,” and said it should get bipartisan support.
Among the new initiatives being rolled out ahead of winter is an extension of the federal program which distributes vaccines through retail pharmacies through December in order to encourage all adults to get booster shots if they first received a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine more than six months ago, or the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at least two months in the past.
Mr Biden also announced the launch of hundreds of family vaccination clinics where kids over five years of age and their parents can each receive age-appropriate vaccine doses. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be operating mobile vaccination clinics.
While the president stressed that no new formulations of the vaccines are needed at this time, he said his team is already working with Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop “contingency plans” for new boosters if “additional measures” are required.
Mr Biden also announced a new programme to ensure that Americans have access to free, at-home Covid-19 testing, either paid for through private insurance or distributed from more than 20,000 federally supported Covid testing sites such as rural health centres and community clinics.
Covid testing will also be required within 24 hours of departure for anyone entering the United States, Mr Biden said. The new shorter testing window eliminates an earlier policy under which fully vaccinated travelers could enter the US with proof of a negative test during the prior 72 hours.
“The bottom line this winter, you’ll be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind. This is on top of the 20,000 sites already around the country like pharmacies, where you can go in and get tested for free,” he said.
Mr Biden also pledged that his administration will continue aiding communities that see cases rise this winter while improving the care those who contract Covid-19 receive through “surge response teams” to supplement overworked medical staff at hospitals that get hit by a surge in Covid patients.
“These teams work … they provide badly needed staff … for emergency rooms and intensive care units,” Mr Biden said, as well as provide lifesaving treatments such as monoclonal antibodies.
While the Biden administration currently has 20 teams deployed currently, the president said his team will triple that number this winter.
The president stressed that the treatments his administration is making available such as the monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medications are “recommended by new doctors, not conspiracy theorists”.
Although he stressed that the antiviral pill treatments are still “on the horizon,” Mr Biden said his administration has secured a significant supply of the pills, which could prevent hospitalisations and deaths among people who are infected with Sars-CoV-2.
Mr Biden cautioned that it is not yet known whether the treatments are as effective against the omicron variant, but said it was his hope that they will be.
“We have the best tools, the best vaccines in the world, the best medicine and the best scientists in the world. We’re gonna fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion, just like we beat back Covid-19 in the spring and more powerful delta variant in the summer and fall,” he said.