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Biden to reveal 'winter plan' on COVID, omicron variant. Here's what health experts want to hear.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 01/12/2021 Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
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President Joe Biden is expected to reveal a comprehensive plan Thursday detailing how his administration will combat COVID-19 this winter, a day after the first case of the omicron variant was identified in California. 

The president assured the public during a briefing Monday the plan will not entail shutdowns or lockdowns, but officials say it will include travel restrictions. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking steps to tighten U.S. testing rules for travelers from overseas, including requiring a test for all travelers within a day of boarding a flight to the U.S. regardless of vaccination status. It was also considering mandating post-arrival testing.

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Health experts are looking for more. They want the Biden administration to get more people vaccinated and boosted, escalate testing and genomic testing, increase availability and access to treatments, and encourage individual public health measures. 

Vaccination is the best way to protect against all strains of the virus, health experts say.

There’s plenty of doses to vaccinate and boost all eligible Americans, but access may become an issue, again, said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan.

She wants to see the Biden administration support mass vaccination sites and events to quickly boost everyone before the holiday season. 

“When we had these mass vaccination events, it seemed very easy to drive in and get a vaccine and go," she said. "That's become harder right now."

After vaccination, testing is the most important pillar of the public health strategy, said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

He wants Biden to increase access to COVID-19 testing and expand it to include genomic sequencing in hospitals and community surveillance sites. At-home testing helps reduce coronavirus transmission, but it can't track the prevalence of the omicron variant. 

"There are ways of setting up sentinel surveillance sites. A place to start would be in hospitals and making sure there's genotyping being done in a sufficient number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19," he said. "With home-based testing, we’re not going to be able to differentiate the omicron variant from delta." 

President Joe Biden answers a question as he speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Washington. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, listens at left. © Evan Vucci, AP President Joe Biden answers a question as he speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Washington. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, listens at left.

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Malani also wants the Biden administration to increase supply and access to treatment options to prevent hospitalizations and avoid overwhelming the health care system. 

Until recently, the only treatment available to keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital has been monoclonal antibodies, which must be delivered through a shot or infusion. Many patients did not take advantage of this treatment when it was first available as they didn’t have access to infusion centers or couldn't spare the hour it required.

Availability and access to monoclonal antibodies has gotten better in some states, Malani said, but the Biden administration must expand those resources to the rest of the country.

“Now it’s almost a drive-thru and you sit in your car and you’re monitored,” she said. “There are other models where local EMS go to people’s homes to do these infusions and that would be convenient everywhere but it requires a different set of resources.”

Health care providers may soon get another treatment option. A federal advisory committee recommended this week that the FDA authorize the first antiviral to treat COVID-19, called molnupiravir from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The pills, which would be available by prescription, are meant to be taken twice a day for five days. Biden’s strategy must include a plan to get this medication to health care providers across the country, Malani said.

“You can envision a system where you can test and give people a pack of pills to take home at the same time,” she said. “None of these are a replacement for vaccination but each piece is instrumental.”

Health experts expect an uptick in COVID-19 cases this winter, even if omicron doesn't arrive to the U.S. They don't foresee officials recommending to cancel holiday plans, but hope they urge Americans to take extra precautions. 

This includes masking in public spaces, social distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene, said Karen Edwards, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, Irvine.

For children too young to get vaccinated, experts recommend limiting their exposure before traveling or gathering with loved ones who may be more at risk of severe disease from COVID-19. Parents may want to reschedule playdates until after the holidays and make sure their children are wearing masks in school.

“The timing of this is really challenging,” Edwards said. “If people are concerned about this, they should be reconstituting these measures on their own to reduce the spread to other people.”

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden to reveal 'winter plan' on COVID, omicron variant. Here's what health experts want to hear.

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