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Biden says no lockdowns, won’t expand vaccine mandates this winter

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration’s plan to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) with the emergence of the Omicron variant, during his visit to the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., December 2, 2021.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Joe Biden on Thursday said his plan to fight Covid during the winter months will not include new lockdowns or an expansion of the administration’s current vaccination requirements.

“It doesn’t include shutdowns or lockdowns, but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing a lot more,” Biden told reporters during an update on Thursday.

“And while my existing federal vaccination requirements are being reviewed by the courts, this plan does not expand or add to those mandates — a plan that all Americans hopefully can rally around, and it should get bipartisan support in my humble opinion,” the president said.

The administration hopes to increase the number of Americans who have received booster shots by expanding outreach. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will contact the more than 60 million people who are on Medicare, mostly seniors, to remind them to get an additional shot.

The White House plan, unveiled earlier Thursday, comes after at least two cases of the highly mutated omicron variant were detected in California and Minnesota this week. Health officials in the U.S. and around the world are concerned that the variant, which has some 50 mutations, could prove more transmissible and evade protection from vaccines to some degree.

The White House is asking businesses with 100 or more employees to voluntarily move forward with the administration’s requirements to get their staff vaccinated or tested weekly by Jan. 4. A federal appellate court put the policy on hold pending review last month, citing constitutional concerns. The administration says it’s on firm legal ground and expects to win the case.

Biden said Thursday the administration’s goal is to keep schools open by launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics at community health centers and other locations around the country to make it easier for parents to immunize their kids.

“We want our children in school, we are going to take new steps to make sure it stay stays that way,” Biden said. “But again, the best step is to vaccinate your children.”

The plan also includes an expansion of free at-home Covid testing. Americans with private insurance will get reimbursed for the tests, and the administration will distribute 50 million free tests to health centers and rural clinics for people who are uninsured or underserved, according to the president.

Biden said the White doesn’t believe additional measures are needed at the moment, but is developing contingency plans to develop new vaccines and boosters if they’re needed to fight omicron.

“My team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson to develop contingency plans for other vaccines or boosters,” Biden said. “And I’ll also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available without cutting corners for safety, to get such vaccines for reviewed and approved if needed,” he said.

The U.S., starting next week, will also require inbound international travelers regardless of vaccination status to get tested 24 hours before their departure. The administration is also extending the mask mandate for domestic flights and public transit until March 18.

“We are in a better position than we were a year ago to fight COVID-19,” Biden said.

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