WASHINGTON — With the first U.S. case of the omicron variant detected in California, President Joe Biden is pushing to increase the country's defenses against the coronavirus.
He's expected to announce on Thursday a new plan to mitigate its spread during the winter, including added requirements for international travelers. People entering the United States may be required to test for COVID-19 within 24 hours of boarding a flight, rather than within 72 hours under current rules.
These steps would be taken even as scientists have yet to determine whether the omicron variant is more contagious, deadly or resistant to vaccines than previous versions of the coronavirus that have already killed millions across the globe.
However, Biden seems unwilling to take any chances, especially after the delta variant caused a surge in deaths earlier this year, prolonging a pandemic that Americans had believed was on the verge of ending.
Speaking about omicron at the White House on Wednesday, Biden said, "We'll fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion."
Biden has already halted travel from South Africa, which first reported the existence of the omicron variant last week, and other countries in the region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked airlines to provide lists of passengers who arrived before the ban.
Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Biden's consideration of new travel requirements sends a signal that omicron could be a serious threat.
"What's the broader psychological and political message that this is conveying to the American people?" he said, adding that the U.S. already faced a difficult winter. "This is trying to convey that we are in a dangerous and very difficult situation, and hopefully that motivates people to get vaccinated and to get a booster."
The California patient who tested positive for omicron returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. according to public health officials. The person was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving.
Officials said people who came in close contact with the patient have been contacted and tested negative.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's top medical adviser, told reporters at the White House that he wasn't surprised that omicron had been found in the U.S.
"We knew that it was just a matter of time," he said.
Fauci encouraged people to get vaccinated and, if eligible, to receive booster shots.
"There's every reason to believe" that current versions of vaccines will protect against severe disease from omicron, Fauci said.
He added, "Get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost."
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