(December 1, 2021)
7:38 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us tonight. Tomorrow, President Biden is going to announce new actions to protect Americans against the Delta and Omicron variants as we battle COVID-19 this winter.
Tonight, we have [senior administration official] on the call. As a reminder, this call is going to be on background, attributable to "senior administration officials," and embargoed until tomorrow, 5:00 a.m. Eastern, as is the factsheet that you all already have.
I know there's a lot of news today. This call is going to be focused on the President's plan and the substance of the factsheet in this conversation. So, keep that in mind. We'll keep question - we will take questions at the end.
And with that, I will pass it to [senior administration official] to walk through some questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. And thanks for everyone joining us this evening.
So tomorrow, as [senior administration official] said, the President will announce new actions to keep Americans safe from Delta and the Omicron variants as we combat COVID-19 this winter.
As you will see from the material you have in your inbox, we are pulling out all the stops to get people the maximum amount of protection as we head into the winter months.
Before I walk through the highlights, I wanted to step back and underscore what the President said earlier this week: While this new variant is a cause for concern, it is not a cause for panic. We have the tools we need to confront this variant, to keep making progress in our fight against the virus. And we are using these tools to keep people safe, keep our schools open, and protect our economy.
We'll get to your questions in a minute, but let me walk through a few notable areas of the plan. First, I'll start with getting Americans boosted.
Our doctors believe that boosters provide people more protection from COVID than ever before, making them a really critical part of how we keep people safe. Nearly 100 million Americans are eligible for boosters and have not yet gotten their booster shot.
Tomorrow, the President will announce a nationwide campaign to get people their booster shots.
Pharmacies will expand availability of appointments and walk-ins, and they'll send millions of texts, calls, emails encouraging and reminding people to get the booster.
Medicare will send a notice to the 63 million seniors encouraging boosters - the first of this - of its kind in over four years.
The AARP will collaborate with the administration to help get seniors boosted. This will include town halls, rides to booster clinics, and education events across the country, focusing on our hardest-hit and highest-risk older Americans.
Next, protecting our kids and keeping our schools open.
When the President came into office, more than half the schools in this country were closed. Today, we have a vaccine for kids age five and older. And 99 - over 99 percent of schools across the country are fully open and in person.
Tomorrow, we will announce - the President will announce steps that will ensure that remains the case, including by making sure more kids benefit from the protection of a vaccine.
So a couple of items here: First, the administration will fo- - will announce a new effort to launch family vaccination clinics across the country. These one-stop shop sites will offer vaccinations for the whole family. Kids can get their first shot; parents and grandparents can get first or second shots or boosters if it's time.
These clinics will be held at community health centers and other trusted locations. And some will be mobile to reach far- - to reach further into hard-to-reach communities. This builds on the significant work we have made - we have done already to date to make getting vaccinated easy and convenient.
Second, Medicaid and CHIP - the Children's Health Insurance Program - will start paying healthcare providers to talk to families about the importance of getting their kids vaccinated.
Together, these programs cover
82 million people and nearly half of all children in this country, including a significant number of Black and brown children.
Finally, the CDC will review school COVID prevention policies so entire classrooms or schools don't have to shut down when there is a positive case. This includes releasing new findings in the weeks ahead on "test to stay" policies, quarantining, and a new school safety checklist.
Next, expanding free at-home testing for Americans.
Since the President took office, we have made significant investments in testing. On day one, there were zero at-home COVID tests on the market. Today, there are at least eight on the market. And our supply of at-home tests this month will be four times as much as it was in late Summer.
Tomorrow, we're going even further.
First, the President will announce that health insurers must cover 100 percent of the cost of at-home tests purchased by their members. Private health insurers already cover the PCR tests people get at their doctor's offices. With this action, they will cover at-home tests as well.
This means that the 150 million Americans with private health insurance will soon be able to be reimbursed for the cost of their at-home tests.
And to ensure easy and free testing to all, including those without private insurance, the President will announce that we will distribute 50 million free tests - at-home tests - to community sites, such as health centers and rural clinics, so that (inaudible) can reach some of the hardest-hit and hardest-to-reach communities.
Next, helping states and communities respond to cases.
So, since this summer, our COVID-19 Surge Response Teams have helped 27 states and two territories respond to the Delta surge by addressing critical needs on the ground.
To date, we have deployed over 2,000 personnel, surged over 3,200 ventilators and other supplies, and shipped over 2.3 million courses of the lifesaving monoclonal antibody treatments.
As we face a new variant and rising cases during the winter months, tomorrow, the President will renew the federal government's commitment to help with surges and help our states. Importantly, this includes making 60 emergency response team deployments available to states. And we will strengthen our national volunteer emergency medical response corps to support communities in need.
The last piece of the President's plan I want to highlight tonight is strengthening the safety of international travel.
Already, we have very strong protocols in place to ensure the safety of international travelers and keep people safe here at home, including a requirement for foreign travelers to be fully vaccinated and pre- and post-departure testing requirements.
Tomorrow, we will announce that we are further strengthening our testing requirement so that starting early next week, all international travelers will be required to test negative within one day of their departure to the United States, and that's regardless of nationality or vaccination status.
Let me go ahead and stop there, [senior administration official]. As I said at the top, there are several actions - these are several of the actions. And you all have a factsheet that walks you through our comprehensive list of actions.
But - so let me close by underscoring one thing: We will continue to act aggressively. We will continue to follow the science. We will continue to prepare for all scenarios and work day and night to protect the American people, keep our schools open, keep our economy growing, and get this pandemic behind us.
So, with that, let's take some questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks, [senior administration official]. First question, let's go to Nate Weixel at The Hill.
Q Hey, thanks for taking my question. On the international travel front, why implement these policies now? Was this something that could have been done during Delta? And then, related, would you consider some sort of similar strategy for domestic travel?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks for the question. So, I think I'd start by saying we have really strengthened our international travel system pretty dramatically over the last month or so.
Now everyone who comes in - every foreign national who travels to the country via air has to be fully vaccinated. Everyone who comes in needs a negative test either one day if they're unvaccinated or three days prior to departure. And everyone has to wear - is required to wear a mask on international and domestic flights.
We believe that tightening - and our doctors believe - tightening that testing requirement for pre-departure will help catch more cases - potential cases of people who may be positive before they fly into this country. And so, we think now is the right time to do it, and we can implement it very quickly.
On domestic, I think, as I said, the masking requirement is in place already, and, in fact, we will be extending that requirement from January to - extend it all the way until mid- March.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, let's go to Dan Diamond.
Q Thanks so much for taking my question. I have a few about rapid at-home testing. Under the planned guidance, will at-home tests be retroactively covered for Americans who may have spent hundreds of dollars already on those tests?
And then, given the shortages that we've seen of at-home tests across the year, how can the Biden administration be confident that there will be sufficient supply once insurers will be covering these tests too?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so it's a good question. So, the first one, Dan: No, it will not be retroactively covering tests.
On the testing supply, we have done a ton to increase testing capacity in this country, including in the at-home test. We have $3 billion worth of investments to accelerate the manufacturing of those rapid tests.
You know, as I mentioned in my remarks, we had no tests on the market when we entered office. We now have eight tests on the market, and supply will quadruple this month from where it was at the end of summer.
So, we're doing a ton to ramp up all tests, but, specifically, a big focus on ramping up these at-home tests.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, let's go to Spencer Kimball at CNBC.
Q Hi, can you hear me?
Q Yeah. Okay. My question is about the vaccination and testing portion of this. So OSHA said this month that it's suspending activities related to enforcement and implementation. So, to be clear, the administration is asking businesses to voluntarily move forward with requirements. Right?
And related to that, are there any plans to change the compliance deadlines, given that the litigation might not be resolved until the New Year?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Spencer. Good question. I think what we - what we're doing is what we've done all along, which is we're asking businesses to step forward and do what's right to protect their workers and to protect their communities, which is to put in place some sort of vaccination requirement or testing requirement for the workplace.
We've now already seen about 60 percent of work - employers do this across the country. And I'd say, just as the U.S. government, we've seen how much this has worked. We're the largest employer. I think we have about 3.5 million employees - a diverse employee base across every geography and many different sectors. And we have successfully implemented our own vaccination requirement, which is the strictest requirement. And we now have 92 percent of our employees vaccinated and I think over 96 percent compliance. And that number goes up every day.
And so, we know these work, and we think it's in the best interest of public health and employers to put them in place.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, let's go to Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg. Hey, Josh, you're unmuted.
Hey, Josh, you're unmuted.
Q Yeah, [senior administration official], sorry. You were - it says you were muting me over and over. And I won't hold it against you. Thank you. Thank you kindly and sorry about that.
Can you say whether you considered doing PCR tests as opposed to a one-day window per antigen test? Some countries, of course, require a PCR test for arrival. It - was that something you thought about? And if not, why not, given that there are questions, of course, as to the - whether all antigen tests can pick up Omicron? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Josh, that's a good question. So the CDC, really - they did look at this. They looked at the question of: How do you tighten these testing requirements? And I think on (inaudible) they came out on what we're doing, obviously, in their recommendation, which is to tighten the timeline and not necessarily the type of test.
I will tell you that we are continuously looking and the FDA is looking at the efficacy of these tests against - of all tests - against the Omicron variant. And if we were to find that a test didn't work, we would certainly take it off our list of accepted tests for international travel.
But, so far, we haven't seen that.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, Kelly O'Donnell, NBC News.
Q Good eve- -
MODERATOR: One second, Kelly.
Q I think I'm having the Josh Wingrove problem.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Laughs.) We hear you.
Q Okay, great. Sorry about that. Has there been any outreach, since you have manifests of international travelers who arrived into the country prior to the Monday enactment of the restrictions - any outreach to them to do any additional testing to see if any further symptoms have come up, like the individual in California who came forward after being an international traveler?
And do you think there needs to be any enhanced generalized surveillance of samples - of testing that are being done in the U.S. when people go in with symptoms to determine whether it's Delta or the new variants?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Kelly. So, on your first one, CDC is working with local public health departments in a lot of the areas that have many incoming flights from Southern Africa and sharing, as appropriate, contact information that they collect on the travelers, which I'd say is pursuant to a contact tracing order that this administration put through just earlier this fall, which is really, I think, fundamental for this pandemic and will be fundamental if we have future pandemics. So, that is happening.
I don't have details on that for you, but we can certainly follow up with the CDC on the specifics of that contact information.
On your second question, I think I would say that, look, we are doing - we have, I think, increased by tenfold the amount of sequences - sequence - tests we sequence in this country from when we came into office. That was a purposeful investment and our first strategy, even before the ARP, is - was to find money to increase sequencing because we knew it was going to be fundamental to this pandemic and, frankly, for our long-term pandemic preparedness.
And so, that has increased by tenfold. And I think you're seeing that play out in places like San Francisco. And kudos to them to sequence very quickly and get the result of this Omicron case.
MODERATOR: Great. Sheryl Stolberg, New York Times.
Q Thank you for taking my question and for doing this. My question is about mask mandates. Right now, only six states require indoor masking for all people, regardless of vaccination status. And given that we know that masks prevent transmission and that vaccinated people can get infected, I'm wondering why this strategy is silent on mask mandates with the exception of - for travel. I was wondering if the President was considering calling on governors to revive indoor mask mandates in their states.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks, Sheryl. I think we're not silent on it. We have existing CDC guidance that's been in place for several months on what we think and what CDC believes is the best public health measure, which is that if you're in a substantial - an area of substantial or high transmission, that you do have indoor masking in place for individuals of any vaccination status.
And so, that's certainly what we're practicing in the federal government, practicing in the White House, and we hope that state and local authorities do the same.
MODERATOR: All right. We have time for a couple of more questions. Sabrina Siddiqui at the Wall Street Journal.
Q Hi, thank you so much for doing this call. I did have a follow-up on travel. Can you confirm that - if you're also considering any post-arrival testing or quarantine requirements for international travel, what those might look like and how you would enforce them if you are, in fact, thinking about putting in place some kind of post-arrival testing mechanism and also a quarantine period?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks, Sabrina. So we're not announcing any steps on post-arrival testing and quarantine.
I will reiterate just - I think what it was - is already a pretty strong system we have in place and which we are strengthening: All travelers - foreign travelers need to be vaccinated, tested before they depart and masked, obviously, on the plane. And then we are tightening that window for all travelers, all nationalities, all departure places to one day prior to their departure rather than three.
I will say - look, if additional measures are recommended, if additional measures can be implemented well and are effective, we won't hesitate to take them, but we're not taking them today.
MODERATOR: All right, last question. Let's go to Zeke Miller at the AP.
Q Thanks, you all for doing this. I was hoping - just on the at-home testing, [senior administration official], I was hoping you could provide a little bit more information in terms of - will insur- - private insurance companies cover somebody who just wants to go to CVS and buy that home test? Because for serial testing, do they need to show symptoms? Does it have - are there any conditions on what types of tests those private insurers will cover?
And then, can you confirm that this also doesn't apply to public insurance? And, you know, obviously folks who are on Medicare, Medicaid would not get this, so what's being done so that they have access to those rapid at-home tests?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thanks, Zeke. It's a good set of questions.
So first, the D- - I'm sorry, the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, and Treasury will work through the rulemaking here and release the guidance to answer your specific questions on exactly how many tests and at what frequency will be covered.
But this will cover about 150 million Americans who have private insurance, so it is a huge step forward. For those with public insurance, they're not covered by this particular action. But as I mentioned that we - we will be doubling down on our commitment to send free at-home tests - 50 million of them - to community health centers, rural clinics, and other locations where people can go pick up tests. And on top of that, there's already 20,000 locations where people can go get a free test in this country today.
MODERATOR: All right. Let's fit in one final question. Let's go to Jeff Mason at Reuters.
Q Excellent. Thank you very much. To follow up, actually, on Zeke's question with regard to private insurance: Can you just lay out how does that work if the federal government says that private insurance companies have to cover this? What's the legal basis for this? Will they just follow it because that instruction is laid out, or how does that work?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, the - I - and I'll try to correct this if I get it wrong - but I believe it's the Families First Act required - which was amended by the CARES Act - required free testing. And this is our assessment of that: that it should cover and it must cover at-home tests for Americans on that private insurance and not - as I mentioned, not on the public insurance policy.
So that is a mechanism. And then, as I said, DH- - or HHS, Labor, and Treasury, which are the agencies responsible for implementing this, are going through that rulemaking process now and we'll see that in the coming weeks.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you so much, [senior administration official]. And thank you, everybody, for joining us tonight.
As a reminder, this is all embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow and attributable to "senior administration officials." And we will talk more tomorrow. Thank you.
8:00 P.M. EST