President Biden is set to announce on Thursday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy over-the-counter at-home rapid tests for COVID-19 — one of a series of steps the White House is planning to encourage better detection and prevention of COVID this winter.
"The bottom line is we are really pulling out all the stops to get Americans the maximum protection as we head into the winter months and as we face this new [omicron] variant," Natalie Quillian, the deputy White House COVID response coordinator, told NPR in an interview.
Biden is set to outline his new plan at 1:40 p.m. ET at the National Institutes of Health the day after the first U.S. case of the omicron variant was discovered in California. Officials are concerned the variant could spread more easily than previous strains.
There is no single blockbuster announcement, no major new mandate or target for rapidly increasing the number of vaccinated Americans. Instead, Biden's plan to fight the virus this winter is a battle of increments: efforts to get booster shots into the arms of all adults and especially seniors, setting up family vaccine clinics, offering more free and lower-cost at-home testing options, stockpiling antiviral pills and readying strike teams to help states with outbreaks.
One of the new elements will be requiring private health insurers to reimburse people for buying home tests — just as they are currently required to cover tests done at pharmacies and labs. This will reduce costs for more than 150 million Americans with private insurance, once the official rule is finalized and put in place in the new year.
"We think this is the right policy," Quillian told NPR. "We also think it's the most economical policy, because the cost of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any rapid home test."
For people without private insurance, the government will buy another 25 million tests to give to community health centers and rural clinics. In September, the White House spurred manufacturing of at-home tests with $3 billion in spending, which included 25 million tests for underserved communities.
"Our supply of these rapid tests has quadrupled this month from where we were at the end of summer," Quillian said. "We've put a ton of resources into this."
The administration also will require that all travelers coming into the United States be tested for COVID a day before departure for their trip using a viral test. This will apply to Americans returning home, whether they're vaccinated or unvaccinated, as well as foreign travelers.
But there are no new requirements for testing after arrival in the U.S., or for quarantining after returning from a trip.
The administration will extend the requirement to wear masks on planes and public transportation to March 18.
The White House also wants to try to increase the number of people getting booster shots. In total, 100 million adults have yet to get a booster shot.
Only half of U.S. seniors have received booster shots so far, something that the administration has emphasized will help protect them against the new variant. The shots have been available to seniors since September.
The administration will work with pharmacies and the AARP on outreach campaigns to encourage people to make appointments, and will offer clinics on evenings and weekends. The government will also launch family vaccination days so that adults can get their booster shots while getting their kids vaccinated.
"I think for working families, for busy moms and dads, this is a really hopefully convenient way where they can go get their booster and their kids' shots all at the same time," Quillian said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also getting ready to release information on "test to stay" policies that let kids exposed to COVID stay in school as long as they repeatedly test negative for the virus, rather than recommending mandatory 14-day quarantines.