President Biden unveils plan to fight COVID spread over winter; hospitalizations in Iowa reach a new high for 2021

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“I know COVID-19 has become very divisive in this country, it’s become a political issue, which is a sad, sad commentary,” President Joe Biden said on Thursday. “It shouldn’t be, but it has been. Now as we move into the winter and face the challenges of this new variant, we can put the divisiveness behind us, I hope.”

Biden was speaking at the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, introducing his administration’s new five-part plan to counter the virus this winter. Shortly before Biden spoke, the CDC confirmed two more cases of the Omicron variant, one in Colorado and one in Minnesota.

The Colorado case, like the first case confirmed in California on Tuesday, is someone who recently returned from South Africa, where the variant is spreading rapidly. The Minnesota case was someone who had returned from an anime convention in New York. Health officials are recommending anyone who attended the Anime NYC convention at the Javits Center from Nov. 19-21 get tested.

In his speech at the NIH, Biden said “we enter this winter in a position of strength compared to where America was last winter.” He pointed out that by Christmas 2020, only 1 percent of adults in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This Christmas that number will be 72 percent,” the president said.

According to the latest information from the Iowa Department of Public Health, 65.2 percent of Iowans 18 and older have been fully vaccinated. Accounting for all Iowans, the number drops to 53.1 percent.

The first two parts of Biden’s plan focus on increasing vaccination rates.

The administration is going to increase communication efforts aimed at encouraging people to get booster shots. Anyone 18 and older is eligible for a free booster shot, two months after being vaccinated with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or six months after a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna.

All federal employees will also be eligible for paid time-off to get a booster, and Biden said he is encouraging private employers to do the same.

There will also be added focus on vaccinated children over the age of 5.

“Today I’m announcing we’re going to launch hundreds of new family vaccinations clinics across the country,” Biden said. “These sites are going to offer vaccinations for the whole family at one stop.”

Patents will be able to get vaccinations — either initial doses or boosters — at the same time children are vaccinated.

“Vaccinating our children is also critical to keeping our schools open,” the president said.

The third part of the plan dealt with expanding testing.

Starting in January, health insurers will be required to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests, just as they are currently required to pay for tests performed by others.

“For those not covered by private insurance, we’re going to make available free tests at thousands of convenient locations for folks to pick them up and take a test kit home,” Biden said.

Currently, free at-home test kits are available in Iowa City at City Hall (410 E Washington St) and Johnson County Public Health (855 S Dubuque St), in Coralville at the State Hygienic Laboratory (2490 Crosspark Rd) and Remedy Internal Medicine (501 12th Ave, Ste 104), and in Cedar Rapids at Linn County Public Health (1020 6th St SE), the Community Health Free Clinic (947 14th Ave SE), the Catherine McAuley Center (1220 5th Ave SE) and the Eastern Iowa Health Center (1201 3rd Ave SE).

Biden’s plan also calls for tripling the federal government’s number of surge response teams, which are dispatched to communities where virus spread is overwhelming healthcare resources. Currently, there are 20 teams, but 60 teams will be available to respond to communities unable to cope with COVID caseloads this winter.

“Additionally, we’re increasing the availability of new medications recommended by real doctors. Not conspiracy theorists, OK?” Biden announced.

The final part of the president’s plan is directed at COVID-19 spread outside the United States.

Ending the pandemic will require making sure people are vaccinated in countries currently without adequate vaccine supplies, Biden pointed out. The U.S. will be increasing the doses of vaccines it is donating to undersupplied countries, including 200 million in the next 100 days.

There will also be a change to international travel restrictions. Travelers coming to the United States will now be required to be tested within 24 hours of their departure, regardless of vaccination status or nationality.

The president said he believed all Americans could support these new measures.

“This is a moment we can do what we haven’t been able to do enough of through this whole pandemic,” he said. “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 and to think of it in terms of literally a patriotic responsibility, rather than somehow you’re denying people their basic rights.”

That may be a difficult sale to some Iowa Republicans. On Monday, Gov. Kim Reynolds celebrated a federal judge issuing a preliminary injunction stopping the federal government from requiring healthcare workers in Iowa and nine other states be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying “Iowa is fighting back against the Biden Administration’s attack on individual liberties.”

In his order, Judge Matthew Schelp rejected the Biden administration’s characterization of the ongoing pandemic as a public health emergency, and said “the public would suffer little, if any, harm from maintaining the ‘status quo’ through the litigation of this case.”

According to the latest data from the CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, the status quo in Iowa is a high rate of virus spread in 98 counties, and a substantial rate of spread in one (Buena Vista County).

In its weekly update on Wednesday, IDPH said another 9,489 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the state over the previous seven days. That is a decline from the last updates total of 10,643 new cases. That decline may have been caused, in part, by a sharp decline in testing during the week of Thanksgiving.

The number of hospitalized Iowans with COVID-19 jumped to 721 from 623 in the last weekly update. That is the highest number of hospitalized patients reported so far this year.

IDPH also disclosed on Wednesday that 91 more Iowans have died from the virus. Those newly reported deaths brought the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 7,445.

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