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U.S. unveils winter plan to combat coronavirus and its omicron variant

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U.S. President Joe Biden is set to kick off a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shots Thursday as he unveils his winter plans for combating the coronavirus and its omicron variant with enhanced availability of shots and vaccines but without major new restrictions.

A woman gets a COVID-19 vaccination at an outdoor walk-up vaccination site within Franklin Park in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest:

U.S. President Joe Biden is set to kick off a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shots Thursday as he unveils his winter plans for combating the coronavirus and its omicron variant with enhanced availability of shots and vaccines but without major new restrictions.

The plan includes a requirement for private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and a tightening of testing requirements for people entering the U.S. regardless of their vaccination status. But as some other nations close their borders or reimpose lockdowns, officials said Biden was not moving to impose additional restrictions beyond his recommendation that Americans wear masks indoors in public settings.

Biden said Wednesday that the forthcoming strategy, to be unveiled during a speech at the National Institutes of Health, would fight the virus "not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

The White House released details of Biden's plan early Thursday, in advance of the speech.

The Biden administration has come to view widespread adoption of booster shots as its most effective tool for combating COVID-19 this winter. Medical experts say boosters provide enhanced and more enduring protection against COVID-19, including new virus variants.

About 100 million Americans are eligible for boosters under current U.S. policy, with more becoming eligible every day. Convincing those who have already been vaccinated to get another dose, officials believe, will be far easier than vaccinating the roughly 43 million adult Americans who haven't gotten a shot despite widespread public pressure campaigns to roll up their sleeves.

And while Biden's vaccination-or-testing requirement for workers at larger employers has been held up by legal challenges, the president on Thursday will renew his call for businesses to move ahead and impose their own mandates on workers so they can stay open without outbreaks.

Outreach to seniors

In a effort to encourage more people to take the booster doses, the Biden administration is stepping up direct outreach to seniors — the population most vulnerable to the virus. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will send a notice to all 63 million Medicare beneficiaries encouraging them to get booster doses, the White House said. The AARP will work with the administration on education campaigns for seniors.

So far about 42 million Americans, about half of them seniors, have received a booster dose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week broadened its booster dose recommendation to cover all Americans aged at least 18 starting six months after their second dose of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna.


What's happening across Canada


What's happening around the world

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As of early Thursday morning, more than 263.6 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.

In Africa, the heavily mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly becoming dominant in South Africa, less than four weeks after being identified there, authorities said, as other countries tightened their borders against the new threat.

In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor met Thursday with state governors to consider tighter rules to curb coronavirus infections that again topped 70,000 newly confirmed cases in a 24-hour period.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is expected to be elected chancellor by a centre-left coalition next week, said Tuesday that he backs a general vaccine mandate, but favours letting lawmakers vote according to their personal conscience rather than party lines on the matter. The rise in COVID-19 cases over the past several weeks and the arrival of the new omicron variant have prompted warnings from scientists and doctors that medical services in the country could become overstretched in the coming weeks unless drastic action is taken.

In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea broke its daily record for coronavirus infections for a second straight day on Thursday with more than 5,200 new cases, as pressure mounted on a health-care system grappling with rising hospitalizations and deaths. The rapid delta-driven spread comes amid the emergence of the new omicron variant, which is seen as potentially more contagious than previous strains of the virus, and has fuelled concerns about prolonged pandemic suffering.

Women wearing masks walk under a Christmas illumination at a shopping district in central Seoul on Wednesday. South Korea is dealing with an uptick in COVID-19 cases.(Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Jung Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said the government plans to conduct omicron testing on all international passengers who test positive for the coronavirus and will work with biotech companies to develop new tests that could detect the variant faster. Anyone who comes in close contact with a person infected with omicron will be required to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks, even if they are fully vaccinated, she said in a briefing.

Meanwhile, India on Thursday confirmed its first cases of the omicron coronavirus variant in two people who travelled abroad, and a top medical expert urged people to get vaccinated.

India's Health Ministry said the cases include two men in southern Karnataka state who came from abroad. It did not say which country. Health official Lav Agarwal said all contacts of the two men had been traced and tested for the virus.

In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates reported its first case of the new omicron variant in an African woman arriving from an African country through an Arab country, according to state news agency WAM.

In the Americas, the new omicron variant of the coronavirus is likely to soon spread to other countries in North and South America after being detected in Canada and Brazil, the Pan American Health Organization said.

WIth files from Reuters and CBC News

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