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COVID-19 in Maryland

Biden to Unveil Plan to Blunt Potential COVID Surge this Winter

A medical professional prepares to screen people at a COVID-19 testing station in the parking lot of FedEx Field in Landover in March 2020. Increased access to testing is a key feature of the Biden administration’s plans to blunt a possible winter surge of COVID-19 and its variants. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Reimbursements for at-home rapid COVID-19 tests. Tougher testing requirements for international travelers. More emergency response teams to aid states combating infection spikes.

And another big push to get Americans vaccinated.

Those are the latest steps to fight COVID-19 that President Joe Biden will be announcing Thursday, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters Wednesday night on the efforts to stay ahead of a new, unknown variant of the virus and the next wave of infections.

Most significant for Americans who have been shelling out $25 for a package of two rapid COVID-19 tests will be the upcoming requirement that private health insurers reimburse the cost of those at-home tests.

The U.S. has lagged far behind other countries in the production and use of those tests. The Biden administration has sought to speed up both the approval and manufacturing processes, and to lower the cost.

By Jan. 15, officials with the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury will issue guidance to ensure that the 150 million Americans with private insurance can seek reimbursement for the cost of those rapid tests, according to a background memo ahead of the president’s announcement.

Federal officials also will increase the number of rapid tests that are distributed at no cost through community health centers and rural clinics.

Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks on the plan Thursday afternoon at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

New travel rules

Little remains known about the new omicron variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in South Africa late last month. Federal health officials said Wednesday that the first U.S. case has been identified in California, where a traveler who returned from South Africa tested positive on Nov. 29.

Early next week, the federal government will tighten testing protocols for all inbound international travelers, who will need to test within one day of their departure for the U.S., regardless of their nationality or vaccination status.

Domestic travelers also will need to keep wearing their face masks a little longer, with a masking requirement on public travel extended through March 18.

Next phase of vaccine push

Public health officials believe the current vaccines will continue to offer at least some protection against the new variant. Boosters are expected to further increase that protection, and administration officials say they are urging all eligible adults to get a booster shot.

That message will be reinforced through outreach campaigns by pharmacies, AARP and Medicare.

To increase vaccine uptake among eligible children, Medicaid will pay health care providers to talk to families about getting their kids over 5 vaccinated. New family vaccine clinics will launch to encourage adults and children to get their shots at the same time.

Help for schools, states

The new actions also will include a review of school quarantine policies, in an attempt to minimize disruptions to classroom time and parents’ work schedules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release in the coming weeks its review of alternatives to a 14-day quarantine that some districts have tried, such as allowing students to remain in school after a potential exposure if they pass a rapid test.

States also will be able to tap more help as they battle rising case counts.

Some 60 emergency response teams will be on call to aid state officials, with clinical staffers, teams trained in using monoclonal antibody treatments, and epidemiological experts to conduct outbreak infections.

Similar teams assisted 27 states during the summer and fall surge, according to the administration.

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Biden to Unveil Plan to Blunt Potential COVID Surge this Winter