President Joe Biden unveiled a new set of executive actions to address the Omicron variant Thursday, though how serious the threat of the variant will be remains unclear.
Biden gave an address from the White House Thursday where he urged a nationwide effort to up vaccinations and booster shots for Americans. The administration said it will extend the mask requirement for domestic flights to March 18 while increasing restrictions on inbound international travelers, requiring they receive a negative COVID test within 24 hours of departure.
Senior administration officials said pharmacies will send millions of texts and emails as well as make phone calls telling Americans to get the booster. They also said the AARP is working with the administration to urge seniors to get vaccinated and that Medicare will send a notice to 63 million seniors encouraging them to receive the booster shot.
According to the administration officials, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) “will start paying healthcare providers to talk to families about the importance of getting their kids vaccinated.”
Aside from the public relations push, the administration announced it will launch family vaccination clinics around the country to increase vaccination and booster shot levels.
Earlier this week, Biden said the new variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” but during the press briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that domestic travel restrictions were still an option.
“Nothing is off the table, including domestic travel,” she said. “But we do have some strong protections in place already, including requirement of mask wearing, which was extended, doubling of fines if people are not in compliance.”
The announcement comes as Biden’s vaccine mandates have taken losses in the courts, and Republicans debate defunding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency tasked with enforcing Biden's private sector vaccine mandate.
Biden has signed off on multiple vaccine mandates at the federal level in recent months, including one for workers at private companies with at least 100 employees.
The latest Omicron variant has re-upped concerns, though data on the new variant is lacking. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of “disaster emergency” to begin Friday after news of the variant broke. The White House announced precautionary travel restrictions for South Africa and seven other nations last week because of the variant.
Omicron was discovered in recent weeks in South Africa, and there is still very little data or information about the severity of this particular strain. One South African doctor recently told Reuters that those infected with Omicron have “very mild” symptoms, but he said it remains too early to know how severe the strain will be or what long-term effects it may have.
South Africa Minister of Health Joe Phaahla told the media there is "absolutely no need to panic" over the new variant.
"We have been here before," Phaahla said.