The Biden administration is ramping up restrictions for travelers to and within the United States, requiring more stringent testing protocols and extending the existing mask mandate on domestic flights and public transportation to fight COVID-19 variants over the cold winter months.
The White House said on Dec. 2 that President Joe Biden would announce the changes later in the day, with the actions coming in response to the threat of COVID-19 variants—both Delta and the recently emerged Omicron strain.
International travelers coming to the United States will have to test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, within 24 hours of departure, regardless of nationality or vaccination status. That’s a change from the current 72 hours.
“This tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant,” the White House said.
Travelers will also have to continue wearing masks through March 18 on planes, trains, and other modes of public transport, as well as at hubs like indoor bus stations and airports. That requirement was due to expire on Jan. 18. People who don’t comply with the masking requirement face a minimum fine of $500 and up to $3,000 for repeat offenses.
Biden is also expected to encourage more Americans to get a booster shot and announce steps meant to expand vaccine uptake, including a public education campaign involving federal pharmacy partners, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“Pharmacy partners are launching broad-based outreach campaigns to encourage the public to get their boosters, and are sending millions of texts, calls, and emails to eligible customers with information on how to schedule an appointment or walk-in for their booster shot,” the White House said, noting also that federal pharmacy partners will be expanding access to boosters, offering jabs on evenings and weekends.
The AARP and HHS education campaigns will focus on encouraging seniors to get a third shot.
Biden will call on employers nationwide to provide paid time off for staff to get boosters and announce a new effort to launch hundreds of family vaccination clinics across the country to expand access to vaccines.
Other measures include increasing the availability of free at-home COVID-19 tests.
“We have the public health tools we need to continue to fight this virus without shutting down our schools and businesses,” the White House said, adding that, “today’s actions will ensure we are using these tools as effectively as possible to protect the American people against this variant and to continue to battle the Delta variant during the winter months when viruses tend to thrive.”
Public health experts have said more time is needed to determine whether the new Omicron variant is more transmissible, deadly, or vaccine-resistant than other strains.
The White House said it believes the currently authorized vaccines provide at least some protection against the new strain and that booster shots strengthen this protection significantly.