WASHINGTON—Regarding President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday of new COVID measures in the face of the Omicron variant that has created a tidal wave of global anxiety over the past week, a lot of Toronto Star readers will wonder: what does this mean for Canadians?
So let’s start there: Any Canadians planning to fly to the U.S. for a visit this winter will need to show proof of a negative COVID antigen test taken within one day of their arrival (rather than within three days as was previously required).
That’s about it, unless you had somehow booked a flight with a stopover in Botswana, or one of the other southern African countries from which travel into the U.S. is now banned (though you’d have wanted to rethink that anyhow, since Canada has banned travel from those who’ve visited the same countries, and more).
A senior White House official confirmed to the Star on background that no immediate changes to land border travel are being implemented. So if you’re fully vaccinated, your road trip to the U.S. — to visit relatives, or do some cross-border outlet mall Christmas shopping, or to see the Rockettes annual Christmas spectacular on Broadway — remains unaffected, for now.
Of course, in the broader picture, Canadians are affected by more than just the implications for their own travel plans. Sleeping in a bed next to an elephant, as Canada proverbially does in sharing a continent and an economy with 300 million residents of a global superpower, the health precautions the elephant takes to prevent itself from being ravaged by communicable disease are always a matter of keen interest. And most of the measures Biden announced were aimed at boosting the protections offered to Americans while the global science community figures out just how dangerous the new pandemic variant will turn out to be.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said Thursday afternoon, in unveiling his plan. “This is a moment we can do what we haven’t been able to do enough of through this whole pandemic: get the nation to come together, unite the nation in a common purpose to fight this virus, to protect one another, to protect our economic recovery.”
Despite his plea, unity still seemed a ways off: Around the same time he was speaking, Republicans in Congress were threatening a government shutdown as soon as this week if the Biden administration didn’t roll back its vaccine mandate on some workers.
Biden emphasized two elements of his new approach: booster shots, and at-home testing.
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All American adults are now eligible for free vaccine boosters, and Biden’s administration is launching wider walk-in booster availability through drugstores and clinics and a series of outreach and education measures — especially to seniors — to encourage people to get shots. Approximately 60 per cent of Americans are fully vaccinated, while about 12.7 per cent have received a booster shot. Biden also announced measures to try to bump up the number of children getting vaccinated.
Biden also announced that at-home rapid COVID test kits would be fully reimbursable for all Americans who have private health insurance, and that kits would also be provided to community health groups to distribute free to the millions of Americans who are uninsured. A senior administration official said during a press briefing that the government had investing $3 billion this year in ramping up the supply of at-home tests, and expected that by this month the availability would be four times what it was in the summer. The official said the goal is to ensure testing is “free and easy for all.”
There are some other measures — speeding up vaccine sharing with underdeveloped countries, including in southern Africa, rapid response teams to battle Omicron and other breakouts, preparing distribution plans for treatment options that may be approved by the FDA — but one that is not among them is any widespread return to mask mandates (except on public transportation facilities like planes and trains, where a mandate was extended until spring).
Right now, only six U.S. states have mask mandates for indoor public places for vaccinated people. Some experts have suggested that especially since the vaccine resistance of the apparently super-spreading Omicron variant remains unknown, masks might be a particularly important early health measure.
A White House official said the administration agrees with Centers for Disease Control guidance recommending masks indoors even for vaccinated people. “That’s certainly what we’re practising in the federal government, practising in the White House, and we hope that state and local authorities do the same,” the official said. But there was no action on that among the president’s new measures. And anyone who has travelled in the United States recently will have observed that outside major cities in most places, mask usage has been almost entirely abandoned.
Earlier on Thursday, the second confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the U.S. was discovered, this one in Minnesota after an earlier case in California. It is likely only a matter of hours or days before there are more. Perhaps many more. There may be more measures in the U.S. — Biden’s press secretary said Thursday “nothing is off the table” in further measures being considered. Dr. Antony Fauci said the U.S. is working with drug companies to develop a potential “variant-specific boost.”
It’s hard to know just what Omicron will turn out to be, and so it’s hard to know whether the measures Biden announced Thursday will be adequate to deal with it.
Immediately, the effect on Canadians is limited to tighter testing timelines for air travel. Longer term, our fate is, as always, intimately tied to the U.S. effectiveness in fighting off more waves of infection, and illness, and death.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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