President Biden on Thursday will announce a COVID-19 “winter plan” that imposes new, but less strict than feared, international travel rules and mandates that health insurance companies pay for at-home COVID-19 rapid tests.
Air travelers to the US will have to test negative within one day of their flight, rather than within three days, but Biden opted against draconian ideas reportedly under review amid fears about the potentially more contagious Omicron variant.
Biden’s team had considered forcing US citizens to do seven days of mandatory self-quarantine after returning from abroad and requiring them to test negative three to five days after arrival under threat of legal punishment, according to the Washington Post.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the new policies implied that they doubted such aggressive measures could be implemented effectively — after the possible steps sparked panic among Americans who travel for work or vacation.
“We’re not announcing any steps on post-arrival testing and quarantine,” the official said, saying the US had a “pretty strong system” for international arrivals by requiring testing before flights and requiring that most foreigners be vaccinated.
“If any additional measures are recommended, if additional measures can be implemented well and are effective, we won’t hesitate to take them but we’re not taking them today,” she said.
The new international travel rules will continue to allow air passengers to choose between more accurate PCR tests and less accurate rapid tests. Some countries require PCR tests for air passengers.
Biden also will extend through March 18 a rule requiring masks on public transportation including trains and planes. And he will encourage people to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
The new policy granting Americans free rapid tests won’t take effect immediately, but could dramatically expand testing. Rapid tests available from retailers such as CVS Pharmacy currently cost more than $20 each.
“To expand access and affordability of at-home COVID-19 tests, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury will issue guidance by January 15th to clarify that individuals who purchase [over-the-counter] COVID-19 diagnostic tests will be able to seek reimbursement from their group health plan or health insurance issuer and have insurance cover the cost during the public health emergency,” according to a fact sheet.