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The Biden administration announces steps to slow COVID in the winter months

NOEL KING, HOST:

Cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed now in Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Hawaii and, of course, California. As it spreads, the Biden administration is announcing new steps to slow COVID during the winter.

NPR's Allison Aubrey's following this story closely.

Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Can we say that omicron is moving quickly at this point?

AUBREY: Yes. We're certainly learning about more cases. That's for sure. In the Minnesota case, a man had traveled to New York City for a convention where there was a vaccination requirement in place. He was fully vaccinated. He tested positive on November 24. He experienced mild symptoms, which have now resolved. So he's better.

I spoke to Dr. Mark Ghaly. He's secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency. The first U.S. case was identified in his state earlier this week.

MARK GHALY: The common thread between both the case here in California and the case in Minnesota is fully vaccinated people who became infected but had mild symptoms and are recovering. And so to me, one of the most important take-homes is increasing evidence that the vaccines protect against severe disease and that people should get vaccinated and boosted as soon as they're eligible.

AUBREY: And among the latest reports, Noel, we've learned of five cases in the New York City area - at least one was connected to travel from South Africa - and a case in Hawaii not connected to travel.

KING: This gentleman in Minnesota who went to the convention in New York - is anyone doing contact tracing on that event?

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, look; there were a lot of people gathered indoors for the anime convention at the Javits Center. On Twitter, New York City officials are urging people who attended the anime conference to get tested. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the convention had mandated all attendees be vaccinated, also required masks. He said local officials are working with convention organizers and the CDC to track this. And they are also trying to contact trace other cases identified, including ones in Queens and Brooklyn, that do not appear to be related to the convention. Now, de Blasio said people should assume right now there are more cases in the city.

KING: OK. And what are these new measures that President Biden has announced?

AUBREY: Well, one announcement was aimed at making over-the-counter tests more affordable. I mean, rapid antigen tests do give people real-time information as to whether they're infected, and that's great. But they're kind of expensive - about $12 a test, on average. I mean, for a family of four, 50 bucks to test everyone just once - it's a lot. So the president announced yesterday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy these tests. And this should help, as long as supplies keep up. And some municipalities are handing out free tests.

KING: What else is the Biden administration doing to screen people who are coming from other countries to the U.S.?

AUBREY: Well, everyone who plans to board a flight into the U.S. from another country must get a COVID test within one day of departure now, regardless...

KING: Wow.

AUBREY: ...Of their vaccination status or nationality. And the mask mandate in airplanes, airports, on public transportation systems has been extended through March here.

Here's the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19.

KING: What do public health and infectious disease experts make of these actions?

AUBREY: Well, you know, many say the administration could go farther, given the potential threat of omicron and the continued spread of delta, to encourage more vaccination.

Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania says he'd like to see stronger rules for air travel within the U.S. when people fly domestically.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: One requirement that could be very effective is requiring Americans who are going to fly domestically to get vaccinated.

AUBREY: Or require negative tests to show to the airline when you board a flight - you know, it's possible the threat of omicron is motivating some people to get vaccinated or to get boosted. Yesterday, 2.2 million doses were administered. The Biden administration says that that is the highest single-day total in nearly seven months.

KING: That's extraordinary. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.