Biden to boost winter pandemic protections as Omicron arrives

Biden to boost winter pandemic protections as Omicron arrives in the U.S. With the first U.S. case of the Omicron variant detected in California, President Biden is pushing to increase the country’s defenses against the coronavirus.

He’s expected to announce a new plan Thursday to mitigate its spread during the winter, including added requirements for international travelers. People entering the United States may be required to test for the virus within 24 hours of boarding a flight, rather than within 72 hours under current rules.

These steps would be taken even as scientists have yet to determine whether the Omicron variant is more contagious, deadly or resistant to vaccines than previous versions of the coronavirus that have already killed millions across the globe.

However, Biden seems unwilling to take any chances, especially after the Delta variant caused a surge in deaths earlier this year, prolonging a pandemic that Americans had believed was on the verge of ending.

Speaking about Omicron at the White House on Wednesday, Biden said, “We’ll fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

He promised that he would not use “shutdowns or lockdowns,” but focus on vaccinations and testing for the virus.

Biden has already halted travel from South Africa, which first reported the existence of the Omicron variant last week, and other countries in the region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked airlines to provide lists of passengers who arrived before the ban.

Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Biden’s consideration of new travel requirements sends a signal that Omicron could be a serious threat.

“What’s the broader psychological and political message that this is conveying to the American people?” he said, adding that the U.S. already faced a difficult winter. “This is trying to convey that we are in a dangerous and very difficult situation, and hopefully that motivates people to get vaccinated and to get a booster.”

The California patient who tested positive for Omicron returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, according to public health officials. The person was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving.

Officials said people who came in close contact with the patient have been contacted and tested negative.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical advisor, told reporters at the White House that he wasn’t surprised that Omicron had been found in the U.S.

“We knew that it was just a matter of time,” he said.

Fauci encouraged people to get vaccinated and, if eligible, to receive booster shots.

“There’s every reason to believe” that current versions of vaccines will protect against severe disease from Omicron, Fauci said.

He added, “Get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost.”

An estimated 40 million people have received booster shots, but 135 million are eligible. The CDC recommends that all adults get another dose if it’s been six months since they got their second Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or two months if they received the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Before the Omicron case in California was announced Wednesday, Biden spoke from the White House about how his administration has worked to untangle supply chains that became snarled during the pandemic. He said Americans should not be concerned about encountering empty shelves during the holiday season.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “For the vast majority of the country, that’s not what’s happening.”

However, it’s unclear how the Omicron variant could extend supply chain issues that Biden has tried to address. New outbreaks overseas could slow down manufacturing operations or shipping activities.

“The jury is still out,” Biden said. “But am I concerned? Of course I am.”

Mexico announced a joint plan with the United States on Wednesday to send development and agricultural aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, to stem the wave of migration from those Central American countries.

Mexico had long sought a U.S. commitment to fund President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s commercial tree-planting program, known as “Sembrando Vida.”

While the joint plan announced Wednesday adopted a similar nameplate, “Sembrando Oportunidades,” or “Planting Opportunities,” it did not contain any specific funding commitments nor any U.S. support for the Mexican forestry program.

The U.S. Agency for International Development called the plan “a new framework for development cooperation to address the root causes of irregular migration from northern Central America.”

Under the plan announced Wednesday, both countries will work through their own development aid agencies.

The most ambitious targets were set for Honduras, where the joint plan aims to reach as many as 500,000 young people, mainly through training programs and scholarships.

The two governments “plan to bring abilities and experiences to young people with the aim of guiding them into long-term employment, reducing the risk of irregular migration,” according to a statement released by Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department.

Programs in Guatemala and El Salvador will seek to foment good business and governance practices, as well as provide aid. Migrants from Central America have been showing up in increasing numbers at the U.S. border in recent years.

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