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Biden offers travel rules, as well as free COVID tests at-home in order to fight Omicron

Biden offers travel rules, as well as free COVID tests at-home in order to fight Omicron

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - US President Joe Biden announced his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants over the winter, including free and insurer-funded at-home COVID-19 testing and new requirements for international travelers on Thursday.

The US government will require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for 100% of the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests, government officials said, and make 50 million more tests accessible to those who are uninsured free through rural clinics and health centers.

However, refunds for tests will not begin until January, obstructing the crucial holiday period when many families and groups gather indoors.

"We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Biden told the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, while warning that infections will rise this winter.

"The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19," he added.

The administration is urging all eligible Americans to be vaccinated or booster shots in order to fight Omicron, which is widespread throughout the world, and will increase family vaccination sites and increase pharmacie access.

In light of the gradual diminishing protection over time and the rise of Omicron, less than 60% of the United States population, or 196 million people, have been, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations, according to the administration. All vaccinated adults should get a booster.

Regardless of vaccination status, the United States also intends to require inbound international passengers to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure. Mask restrictions on aircraft, trains, and public transportation vehicles will be extended until March 18.

The updated plan will also boost care for those who receive COVID-19, tripling the number of surge response teams that provide extra staff at hospitals that are overrun with patients to 60 from its current level, according to Biden.

It will require more medications "recommended by true doctors not conspiracy theorists," he added.

The efforts to increase testing and shots come as the globe faces new risks from the Omicron variant, and the United States faces a strong, politically driven anti-vaccination culture.

As the epidemic continues, fears about the variante have peaked financial markets and raised doubts about the pace of the global economic recovery.

The White House is looking into new restrictions and methods to increase test and vaccinations based on the severity of the variant, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated.


When the Biden administration releases guidance on the issue by January 15, Psaki told reporters earlier on Thursday that it will reveal whether private health insurance firms will get government cash to reimburse customers for over-the-counter tests.

However, a White House official late on Thursday stated that the government will not reimburse private health insurers for the cost of at-home tests.

According to Psaki, additional free tests at healthcare centers should be available as soon as this month.

Cigna Corp, UnitedHealth Group, and CVS Health Corp are among the most expensive U.S. employer-based health insurers. Cigna Corp, UnitedHealth Group, and CVS Health Corp are reimbursed a determined amount by the government for most medically necessary COVID-19 tests performed in labs and medical offices.

Kristine Grow, spokesperson for insurance industry lobby AHIP, said the industry is working with the administration to ensure that the impact of any testing plan is fully understood. Prices gouging on these tests, higher premiums, and clear rules and guidance for implementation, she said.

Morningstar analyst Julie Utterback said she sees the government's plan as a shift in the possibility of testing rather than a significant increase in costs for health insurers, assuming at-home tests are acceptable.

"I see the logic in trying to keep infected individuals at home instead of forcing them to interact with people outside their house when they are experiencing symptoms," Utterback stated in an interview with people outside their household.

Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel stated that the plan may come at a significant cost for health insurers, with the coverage requirement potentially lasting through the first half of the year.

COVID-19 has killed almost 786,000 people in the United States, including 37,000 in November alone.

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