Here's what President Biden's winter COVID plan involves
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Biden delivered his latest plan today about how to deal with COVID-19. From colder weather to the omicron variant, new challenges abound.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion, just like we beat back COVID-19 in the spring and more powerful variant, the delta variant, in the summer and fall. As a result, we enter this winter from a position of strength compared to where America was last winter.
SHAPIRO: There's also a lot of uncertainty about what the new omicron variant will mean for this fight. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and health correspondent Rob Stein are with us now. And Tam, let's start with you. Explain what is in this new plan.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There are a lot of elements to this plan, and a lot of them are familiar, like efforts to get more people vaccinated and strike teams to help states deal with outbreaks this winter. Biden was clear right up at the top, though, what's not in the plan.
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BIDEN: And it doesn't include shutdowns or lockdowns, but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing a lot more.
KEITH: The biggest headline out of this is that for people with private insurance, you'll be able to get reimbursed for the COVID tests you buy to use at home. And there's a large expansion of free rapid tests for community health clinics and food banks, a total of 50 million tests that people can pick up; so free, more readily available testing.
SHAPIRO: This is the first time we've heard from Biden about the pandemic since it was confirmed that the omicron variant is in the U.S. What did he say?
KEITH: His message about omicron has been consistent. It's a matter for concern, but not panic, he says. And cases showing up in the U.S. were to be expected. While there are still a lot of questions about the variant and what exactly it will mean, Biden and his team have zeroed in on one clear action item, and this is by far the clearest messaging in months from the White House about booster shots.
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BIDEN: Folks, if you're over the age of 18 and you got vaccinated before June 2, six months has gone by. Go get your booster now. Go get it now.
KEITH: There will be extra appointments added for evenings and weekends, paid advertising, text messages and calls from pharmacies, the AARP offering rides to seniors all hitting this same message - get a booster now because that extra immunity can only help heading into winter.
SHAPIRO: OK. So Rob Stein, from an epidemiological perspective, what are these changes likely to mean?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So, you know, the hope is that this will make testing more affordable and give the administration's vaccination and booster campaign a badly needed, well, you know, boost. And both these things have never been more important, you know, especially with the delta variant surging again and now the omicron variant looming out there.
SHAPIRO: What are public health officials - experts saying about this plan?
STEIN: They're welcoming all this, but they say it really doesn't go nearly far enough. You know, first of all, many public health experts say the U.S. should make fast at-home tests flat-out free, just like they are in other countries like Britain. Getting insurance to pay helps, but these tests are still too expensive, and it's a big hassle to get reimbursed by insurance. Here's Dr. Celine Gounder at New York University. She advised the Biden administration
CELINE GOUNDER: If you want people to use rapid testing frequently and to incorporate that into their regular routines, it really needs to be free. It needs to be easy. And the added step of having to get your insurance company to reimburse you for it is really making this far too difficult.
STEIN: You know, another expert I talked to said the government should start mailing every household free pandemic protection kits containing tests and medical-grade masks because Americans need to up their masking game too. And this does nothing to address the testing supply problem. Anyone who's tried to get one of those fast at-home tests lately knows how hard it could be to score some.
SHAPIRO: What else do experts say they would have liked to have seen?
STEIN: Well, there's a lot. You know, first of all, you know, what about domestic travel? If you need to get tested and vaccinated to fly from London to New York for Christmas, why don't you need to do the same thing to fly from New York to Los Angeles? Here's Dr. Leana Wen from George Washington University.
LEANA WEN: If President Biden really wants to do everything to increase vaccine uptake, there are other tools in his toolbox, including to require either testing or vaccination for domestic travel, for interstate train and bus and for plane travel as well.
STEIN: But the big criticism is that the administration doesn't seem to have a big-picture, long-term strategy. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins.
JENNIFER NUZZO: A laundry list of steps sounds good, and I agree with a number of the actions. I think they're in the right place, but we need the overarching strategy because right now, we're kind of lurching between crisis and complacency and without a strategy to know if we're headed on the right path in the long term.
SHAPIRO: Those are a lot of different criticisms. Tam, how does the White House respond to this?
KEITH: Well, I did ask Press Secretary Jen Psaki today about some of these criticisms; you know, that the plan doesn't go far enough. Why not give everyone free COVID tests as Rob's experts suggested? Or why not require testing or vaccines to travel domestically? I specifically asked that, and here's what she said.
JEN PSAKI: Nothing is off the table, including domestic travel.
KEITH: Psaki said that there are ongoing discussions about all kinds of ideas, and they have a record of building on past measures and could do that again. She said they're listening to their public health experts, and they're also dealing with what can practically be implemented. For instance, the White House stands behind the vaccine mandates it's put in place for various employers, but some of those efforts are now caught up in court fights.
And the negative reaction from Republicans has been significant. This plan leads toward the practical rather than the perfect, and Biden himself acknowledged how politicized this has all become, speaking wistfully at this event today at NIH that - you know, saying America should be united behind fighting the virus and, you know, admitting that such unity has been really hard to come by.
SHAPIRO: Do you sense that this plan is informed as much by a sense of, like, what will do the least damage to Democrats in the midterms as by what will be best from a public health perspective?
KEITH: I don't know that they're thinking about the midterms - well, they probably really are thinking about the midterms, but beyond that, they're thinking about what they can actually get implemented. The backlash is something that they've been concerned about for months and months and months. For instance, they resisted putting mandates in effect for employers for a long time before finally deciding that was the only way to get some people vaccinated.
SHAPIRO: White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR science correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, both.
KEITH: You're welcome.
STEIN: You bet.
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