Free COVID tests among new Biden measures ahead of winter surge – USA TODAY

As COVID-19 cases rise again with the arrival of winter and holiday gatherings, the White House on Thursday announced its plans for controlling cases this winter.
The plans include:
Although the administration had said it couldn’t afford to continue COVID-19 support without additional funding from Congress, it has managed to pay for these measures out of the 2021 American Rescue Plan, an administration official said in a Wednesday news conference.
COVID-19 cases have climbed across 90% of the country in recent weeks, with nearly 459,000 cases reported the week of Dec. 7, including nearly 3,000 deaths. COVID-19 in wastewater has fallen nationally in recent days, suggesting infections are likely to fall, although it has been climbing in some states, including Massachusetts.
“While COVID isn’t the disruptive force it once was, we are focused on ensuring that the U.S. is prepared for this winter, no matter what the virus throws at us,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Coronavirus Response coordinator, told media in a Thursday briefing.
Here are some of the major initiatives:
People will be able to order four more free at-home coronavirus tests to be mailed to them. The tests will begin to ship starting the week of Dec. 19 and can be ordered via,  or by calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489) between 8 a.m. and midnight Eastern time any day of the week. 
More free tests will also be made available at schools, community health centers, rural health clinics, long-term care facilities, and other locations.
People with health insurance can also access eight free tests per month.
Public health officials have said that anyone visiting vulnerable friends or relatives this holiday season should take a coronavirus test ahead of time to ensure they are not passing on the virus.
The administration is providing testing, vaccinations and treatments for nursing homes and long-term care facilities, whose residents are particularly vulnerable to severe COVID-19. 
While most of the Americans dying of COVID now are over 65, Jha said fewer than half of nursing home residents have received an updated vaccine and the government is hoping to change that.
They also plan to release a “winter playbook” for administrators of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, summarizing important actions to reduce severe illness, including vaccinations, testing and improving indoor air quality. 
Nursing home staff will now be able to administer COVID-19 vaccines to all residents. 
Although monoclonal antibodies are no longer effective, the government expects to have sufficient doses of the antiviral Paxlovid available at no cost for anyone who needs it.
Paxlovid and other prescription antivirals are recommended for people at risk of severe disease and are extremely effective at preventing hospitalization and death if given within the first five days of showing symptoms. 
Jha emphasized that Paxlovid and other antivirals have been extremely effective at preventing severe disease. Anyone over 60 or who has a chronic disease, “there should be a good reason not to treat,” he said.
The administration promises to continue closely monitoring emerging variants and assess their potential impacts on testing, treatments and vaccines. The BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants dominate U.S. cases, with a variety of other variants accounting for the remaining one-third of the total infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its variant reporting from wastewater and international travelers at major U.S. airports, providing an early warning of variants and trends.
The XBB variant has been raising concerns recently because it evades some natural protection against COVID-19, but “in many ways, it’s more of the same,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mass General Research Institute, both in Boston.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Lemieux and other members of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness said they are not particularly worried about any of the circulating variants. They are still effectively treated by antivirals and seem no more likely to cause severe disease in vaccinated or previously infected people than other variants.
While the BA.1 variant jumped from 10% of cases nationwide to 90% in 10 days earlier this year, “we’re not seeing a rate of increase anything like that” now, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Administration support will include helping communities set up mobile and pop-up vaccination sites, as well as accessible vaccine clinics and at-home vaccine administration. Many of these pop-up sites will also offer free testing and treatments.
The administration is also calling on hospitals to encourage vaccination before a patient is released.
Many of those dying of COVID-19 today are those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly older people.
Vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of death eight-fold in people ages 65 to 80 and four-fold in those over 80, according to a recent CDC study, “which is a really good thing and is one of the reasons why you want to keep people up to date with vaccination,” Hanage said. 
The administration has given out hundreds of millions of masks for free at pharmacies and now will expand that distribution to include food banks and community health centers among other locations. 
Lemieux said he would encourage people to wear masks indoors in dense gatherings or where there are people at high risk. “I would definitely consider it,” he said, adding that he wears a mask himself when indoors with others.
Overall, he and other public health experts say, America has the tools to fight COVID-19 this winter – if people will use them.
“Our toolkit is about as good as it’s going to get for COVID-19 for the foreseeable future,” Lemieux said. “We need to make sure these tools are available to people.”