WASHINGTON - All travelers to the U.S. must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of boarding their flights, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, the White House announced Thursday.
The tightening of testing for those entering the country will begin next week and is down from the current three days for those who have been vaccinated.
The new directive is part of President Joe Biden’s new winter plan for combating COVID-19 and the new omicron variant, which also includes a requirement for private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and paid time off for federal employees to get a booster dose.
"The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19 and they come from a position of strength," President Joe Biden said in remarks from the National Institutes of Health outside Washington. "We are better positioned than we were a year ago to fight COVID-19."
In updating its travel options, the White House has shelved tougher options, like requiring post-arrival testing or requiring quarantines upon arrival in the U.S. It has not yet moved to require domestic U.S. travelers to be vaccinated or get tested, as officials believe such a requirement would be immediately mired in litigation.
"We base our decisions on the advice of the health and medical experts, what’s going to be most effective and what we can implement," press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Thursday. "What’s most implementable, so we look at a range of factors as we make decisions about what steps we can put in place."
Biden is also extending his directive requiring masks on airplanes and other public transit, which had been set to expire in January, through at least the middle of March.
The president traveled to the National Institutes of Health for a briefing on the virus with his COVID-19 response team and scientific advisers before delivering remarks outlining his new strategy.
Much remains unknown about the omicron variant, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill and whether it can thwart the vaccines.
Still, the Biden administration has come to view widespread adoption of booster shots as its most effective tool for combating COVID-19 this winter amid its ongoing spread. Medical experts say boosters provide enhanced and more enduring protection against COVID-19, including new 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.
In an 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 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.
The White House said the CDC was also developing new guidance for schools in an effort to reduce or eliminate current quarantine requirements for those who are not fully vaccinated and exposed to the virus. The new policies, which the White House said will be released in the coming weeks, could include so-called "test-to-stay" policies, in which those who are considered close contacts can continue to go to school but wear masks and undergo serial testing, in a bid to minimize learning loss and disruption.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.