Biden's new winter COVID plan will reimburse you for at-home tests
President Biden announced Thursday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy over-the-counter, at-home rapid tests for the coronavirus — one of a series of steps the White House is planning in order to encourage better detection and prevention of COVID-19 this winter.
Speaking at the National Institutes of Health, Biden said the measures do not include shutdowns or lockdowns, and instead focus on "widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing."
"The actions that I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind," Biden said. His last major set of COVID announcements included a series of vaccination mandates, which have sparked lawsuits and political opposition from Republicans.
There was no single blockbuster announcement and no major new mandate or target for rapidly increasing the number of vaccinated Americans. Instead, Biden's plan to fight the coronavirus this winter is a battle of increments: efforts to get booster shots into the arms of all adults and especially seniors, setting up family vaccine clinics, offering more free and lower-cost at-home testing options, stockpiling antiviral pills and readying strike teams to help states with outbreaks.
He outlined the new steps on the day after the first U.S. case of the omicron variant was discovered, in California. A second case was revealed Thursday in Minnesota and a third in Colorado. Officials are concerned that the variant could spread more easily than previous strains.
In an interview with NPR, Natalie Quillian, the deputy White House COVID-19 response coordinator, described the plan this way: "The bottom line is we are really pulling out all the stops to get Americans the maximum protection as we head into the winter months and as we face this new [omicron] variant."
Biden laments that the virus has become a political issue
Biden cited a survey that showed that 30% of people who said they were not vaccinated will now consider getting vaccinated because of concerns abut the omincron variant. "I hope that's true," Biden said.
Biden called it "a sad, sad commentary" that COVID-19 has become a political issue and expressed hope that as the nation moves into the winter and faces the challenges of a new variant, "this is a moment where we can put the divisiveness behind us."
Biden also noted that the nation is "in a position of strength" this winter compared to last year, with most schools open, and most people having been vaccinated.
Home tests will be reimbursable, just like other coronavirus tests
One of the new elements will be requiring private health insurers to reimburse people who buy at-home tests — just as insurers are currently required to cover tests done at pharmacies and labs. This will reduce costs for more than 150 million Americans with private insurance, once the official rule is finalized and put in place in the new year.
"We think this is the right policy," Quillian told NPR. "We also think it's the most economical policy, because the cost of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any rapid home test."
For people without private insurance, the government will buy another 25 million tests to give to community health centers and rural clinics. In September, the White House spurred manufacturing of at-home tests with $3 billion in spending, which included 25 million tests for underserved communities.
"Our supply of these rapid tests has quadrupled this month from where we were at the end of summer," Quillian said. "We've put a ton of resources into this."
There will be some new rules for travelers
The administration also will require that all travelers coming into the United States be tested for the coronavirus a day before departure for their trip using a viral test. This will apply to Americans returning home, whether they're vaccinated or unvaccinated, as well as to foreign travelers.
But there are no new requirements for testing after arrival in the U.S. or for quarantining after returning from a trip.
The administration will extend the requirement to wear masks on planes and public transportation to March 18.
You're going to see a lot more ads for booster shots
The White House also wants to try to increase the number of people getting booster shots. In total, 100 million adults have yet to get a booster shot.
So far, only half of U.S. seniors have received a booster shot, something that the administration has emphasized will help protect them against the new variant. The shots have been available to seniors since September.
The administration will work with pharmacies and the AARP on outreach campaigns to encourage people to make appointments, and will offer clinics on evenings and weekends. The government will also launch family vaccination days so that adults can get their booster shots while getting their kids vaccinated.
"I think for working families, for busy moms and dads, this is a really hopefully convenient way where they can go get their booster and their kids' shots all at the same time," Quillian said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also getting ready to release information on "test to stay" policies that let kids exposed to COVID stay in school as long as they repeatedly test negative for the virus, rather than recommending mandatory 14-day quarantines.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
With the first U.S. omicron case confirmed in the U.S. and delta continuing to spread widely in the country, President Biden will outline a new plan today for dealing with COVID-19 this winter. Only 59% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and it's not clear what else the Biden administration can really do to raise those numbers.
NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here with a preview. Tamara, so what's the president got on tap today?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The biggest new thing will be that if you have private insurance, you'll be able to get reimbursed for buying those home COVID tests. The federal government is going to require it. Right now, insurance companies have to cover tests done at pharmacies and labs, but that's going to expand to home rapid tests in the new year. There's a big emphasis in this plan on trying to get people to test more so they know when to isolate so they can slow the spread.
I had an exclusive interview last night with Natalie Quillian. She's the deputy White House COVID coordinator. Here's what she told me.
NATALIE QUILLIAN: We think this is the right policy. We also think it's the most economical policy because the costs of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any at-home rapid test.
KEITH: And for people who don't have private insurance, the government is going to buy another 25 million tests to give out free at community health centers and rural clinics.
Here in the U.S., the market for these tests has been really quite shaky. There have been times when it was hard to find them, especially during the delta surge. But in September, the White House spurred manufacturing of these home tests again with $3 billion in spending.
MARTINEZ: You know, the last time the president announced a plan - that was back in September - it was a big deal, a new mandate for big companies. Any dramatic decision expected today?
KEITH: Yeah, there were big surprises in September. We're not expecting them today - no new major mandates or targets for rapidly increasing the number of vaccinated Americans. Instead, Biden's plan to fight the virus this winter is a battle of increments - family vaccine clinics, more free and lower-cost home testing options, encouraging more businesses to require vaccines for their employees, stockpiling antiviral pills, strike teams to help with outbreaks.
The White House especially wants to try to increase the number of people who are getting booster shots. In total, 100 million adults have yet to get their boosters, something that the administration says could help against the new variant. You can expect to see a lot more ads about boosters, even text messages from your pharmacy. The White House will be working with pharmacies and the AARP to encourage people to make appointments. And there will be hundreds of new family vaccination clinics - one-stop shops if you will - later this month. Here's how Quillian described it to me.
QUILLIAN: For working families, for busy moms and dads, this is a really hopefully convenient way where they can go get their booster and their kid's shot all at the same time.
KEITH: And to be frank, the messaging on boosters coming out of this administration has been a bit of a muddle for months, with people not even realizing they could or should get boosters. The message now is quite clear - do it ASAP.
MARTINEZ: One more thing really quick. What about travelers? Because we've seen a ban on people from eight countries. Any more changes there?
KEITH: No new bans, but people traveling internationally will have to get tested for COVID within a day of leaving for the U.S. That will apply to Americans, whether they're vaccinated or unvaccinated, as well as foreign travelers. And masks will still be required on airplanes. That's being extended into March.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks a lot.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.