By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, Dec 2 (IANS): US President Joe Biden announced a country-wide plan to administer Covid vaccine booster doses for all adults, keep schools and workplaces open, expand free-at-home testing, new protocols for international travel, and bolster response and supply of treatment pills to prevent hospitalisation and deaths.
Biden also reinforced America's continued commitment to the global vaccination effort and steps to flatten a winter surge.
Key here is that 100 million eligible Americans who have not yet gotten their booster shot, get one as soon as possible.
Biden believes boosters increase the strength of human antibody response, make the virus mutate and protect against the new variant, Omicron.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance recommending that every adult get a booster.
All adults, who completed a primary vaccination series with an mRNA vaccine at least six months ago and those who received a Johnson & Johnson shot at least two months ago, are eligible.
Biden has made booster shots free and available at over 80,000 locations. To date, over 41 million Americans have already received a booster shot, including half of eligible seniors.
Pharmacy partners are launching broad-based outreach to encourage the public to get their boosters, including millions of texts, calls, and emails to eligible customers with information on how to schedule an appointment or walk-in for their booster shot.
More than two in three Covid-19 vaccinations in the US are already happening at local pharmacies.
Boosters will be offered at convenient hours, including evenings and over weekends, so that adults can get boosted at a time that works best.
An educational focus will be on seniors, considered most vulnerable, including seniors from communities of colour and those from underserved communities.
Federal employees already receive paid time off to get booster shots. Biden called on employers throughout the country to remove this barrier to vaccination access, i.e., paid time off, if not doing so already, including giving paid time off for family members getting their first, second, or booster shots.
"No one should have to choose between their pay check and getting the additional protection of a booster shot or a child vaccination."
As many as 64 per cent of unvaccinated Hispanic/Latino adults and 55 per cent of unvaccinated Black adults have reported concern about missing work to get vaccinated.
Biden announced actions to get more kids ages 5 and older vaccinated and to keep schools open. Ninety nine percent of schools across the country are fully open and in person. The plan is to keep this number there.
The US has vaccinated 4 million 5- to 11-year-olds and 15 million adolescents.
Biden also spoke of launching hundreds of family vaccination clinics to get the whole family vaccinated or boosted in one trusted and convenient location and a new "Safe School Checklist" for schools to give them a clearer game plan.
The US will have tougher global pre-departure testing protocols now. Early next week, pre-departure testing protocols will be tightened by requiring all inbound international travelers to test within one day of departure globally, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.
The requirement to wear a mask on airplanes, rail travel, and public transportation stand extended through March 18.
Fines will be doubled from their initial levels for noncompliance with the masking requirements - a minimum fine of $500 and up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.
Biden called upon businesses to move forward with vaccination or testing programmes. No business should shut down this winter because of Covid-19, he said.
Due to fears of a winter surge, Covid-19 Surge Response Teams will be mobilised to address critical needs on the ground, including personnel, therapeutics, and technical expertise.
To date, the US has deployed over 2,000 personnel, including 1,300 clinical providers, surged over 3,200 ventilators, ambulances and other critical supplies; and shipped over 2.3 million courses of lifesaving monoclonal antibody treatments. A total of 60+ Winter Covid emergency response team deployments will be available to US states.
If and when any new Covid-19 treatment pills are found to meet FDA's scientific standards, Biden vowed equitable access to all Americans, regardless of income or zip code.
He repeated commitment to help vaccinate the globe, and called upon other countries to do the same. The US has committed to donate 1.2 billion doses to the world. Biden promised to deliver 200 million more doses in the next 100 days.
Biden spoke of ramping up vaccine manufacturing, building a sustainable supply chain and increasing global capacity to make additional mRNA vaccines. This includes working closely with Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for other vaccinations or boosters, if needed, and the FDA and CDC to quickly review new vaccines, while ensuring a rigorous safety review.