In the worst days of what President Joe Biden called last year’s “dark winter,” the United States faced more than 4,000 daily deaths from COVID-19. Hospitals were crowded beyond capacity, holiday gatherings became superspreader events, and the country became the worst hot-spot for the pandemic in the world.
This year, Biden declared on Thursday afternoon, must be different.
“The actions I’m announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind,” Biden said during remarks at the National Institutes of Health, detailing a plan intended to prevent another catastrophic winter surge of the coronavirus, even in the face of a disturbing new variant. “That’s how we keep our country and our businesses and our schools open.”
The plan, unveiled just one day after the first case of the Omicron variant of the virus was discovered in the United States, and hours after a second emerged in Minnesota, “pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19,” Biden said, adding that “it’s a plan that, I think, should unite us.”
Despite the potential threat posed by the newest variant of the virus, which in its various strains has claimed 777,000 American lives, Biden said that the nation enters this winter from “a position of strength.” With nearly three-quarters of Americans at least partially vaccinated compared to less than 1 percent last winter, and with the fast-tracking of new treatments and increased access to testing, Biden said that the United States is prepared to face a potential rise in case numbers—if people get on board with the plan.
“This is a moment when we can put the divisiveness behind us, I hope,” Biden said, calling vaccinations and a coordinated response to the virus a “patriotic responsibility.”
The multi-pronged strategy to dull the edge of a winter surge of the virus includes an expansion of free, at-home testing, which a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the announcement would be covered by private health insurers.
“This means that the 150 million Americans with private health insurance will soon be able to be reimbursed for the cost of their at-home tests,” the official said, adding that the federal government would distribute 50 million free at-home tests to health centers and rural clinics in order to increase testing access.
“We will continue to act aggressively. We will continue to follow the science. We will continue to prepare for all scenarios and work day and night to protect the American people, keep our schools open, keep our economy growing, and get this pandemic behind us,” the official said.
The plan also includes a massive awareness campaign for vaccine boosters, now recommended for all American adults at least six months from their initial vaccination, and efforts to launch family vaccination clinics across the country, with particular focus on children over the age of five.
“The next step is to vaccinate your children,” Biden said. “Vaccinate them.”
But the continued politicization of the virus and the government’s response to it—House Republicans are currently threatening to shut down the government to halt Biden’s vaccine requirements for many workers, which also are hitting roadblocks in court—threatens to thwart a strategy the president hopes “Americans can rally around,” as he put it on Thursday.
Republicans have already attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, for telling reporters at the White House on Wednesday that it was possible that people might have to get annual boosters, similar to flu shots, of the coronavirus vaccine.
“Real America is done” with the pandemic, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) tweeted on Thursday ahead of the president’s remarks. “The only people who don’t understand that are Fauci and Biden.”
But the rise of the Omicron variant—the virulence and transmissibility of which is still being determined by scientists around the globe—has put added pressure on the administration’s push to encourage vaccinations at home and abroad, regardless of the domestic political headaches that push creates.
“Ultimately to beat this pandemic, we need to go where it came from,” Biden said, announcing the acceleration of the delivery of more than 200 million vaccine doses to other countries in the next three months. Biden called the vaccination push “not just a moral… obligation,” but a strategy to “protect Americans, as we’ve seen with this new variant.”
“This is a global pandemic,” Biden said, “and everyone needs to fight it together.”