The White House unveiled its long-awaited new coronavirus response strategy on Wednesday, a 96-page plan to turn the corner on the worst public health crisis in a century, while preparing for the next threat – in part by accelerating vaccine research that could be deployed within 100 days of the arrival of a new variant.
“We have reached a new moment in the fight against Covid-19,” Jeffrey D. Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, said in releasing the plan.
The plan, aimed at ushering the United States into what some call a “new normal,” has four main goals: to protect and treat Covid-19; prepare new variants; avoid closures and fight the virus abroad.
But there’s a big problem: Much of the plan requires congressional funding. The administration recently told congressional officials it may need $30 billion to increase funding for the pandemic response. An outside White House adviser, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, said in an interview that the United States needs to spend in the range of $100 billion over the next year to be fully prepared, and billions of more later.
“Congress needs to see this as an investment in biosecurity for the country,” said Dr. Emanuel, who led a team of experts in developing a far-reaching plan that he shared with the House. White.
The strategy follows the President’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening and as new cases in the United States decline, although deaths remain high. Mr. Biden used the speech to highlight a key element: a new “test to treat” initiative that he said would allow Americans to get tested at a pharmacy and, if positive, “to receive antiviral pills on site at no cost.”
Many of the other initiatives – including the rapid vaccine development plan, which was announced in November – are not new. But taken together they are a blueprint for the next phase of the response, although the White House insists the fight against Covid is far from over.
“Make no mistake, President Biden will not simply agree to ‘live with Covid’ any more than we agree to ‘live with’ cancer, Alzheimer’s or AIDS,” the plan states.
Health Secretary Xavier Becerra, who has not taken part in regular Covid press briefings and has been criticized lately for keeping too low a profile, made a rare appearance on Wednesday with other senior Covid officials. health.
He highlighted the plan to boost research into long Covid, the long-term symptoms some people experience after infection, pledging to open “new centers of excellence” to provide high-quality care, but it will also require Congressional buy-in.
The idea behind the strategy is to get the nation out of crisis mode and get to a place, Mr Biden said, where the virus will no longer disrupt daily life. The plan included a commitment for the administration to work with Congress to “give schools and businesses guidance, testing, and supplies to stay open, including tools to improve ventilation and air filtration.” .
In interviews, experts generally hailed the plan as a good step forward. But Jay A. Winsten, director of the Harvard Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health, said even the 100-day timeline for vaccine development might not be fast enough for a highly transmissible variant like Omicron. The first Omicron sample was collected in South Africa on November 8, he said; the United States reached the peak of the Omicron wave just 67 days later on January 14.
Mr Biden took office more than a year ago with a 200-page plan to tackle Covid, which was the most pressing challenge of his fledgling presidency. But a lot has changed since then.
Over 200 million Americans have been vaccinated. Two new waves – one powered by the Delta variant, the other by Omicron – claimed nearly a million lives. Covid treatments have been developed, including the Pfizer drug Paxlovid, which will be part of the ‘test and treat’ initiative.
Although these pills have been relatively rare since they were authorized late last year, Mr Biden said in his speech on Tuesday evening that “Pfizer is working overtime to get us a million pills this month and more from double next month.
Even though the White House says things are looking up and new federal guidelines suggest 70% of Americans can stop wearing masks for now, large groups of people remain at risk. Children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccines.
And an estimated seven million Americans have weakened immune systems, illnesses or other disabilities that make them more vulnerable to severe Covid. The White House announced last week that it was taking several steps to make masks and testing more accessible to these groups.
Asked about the status of federal air and rail travel mask mandates, Zients noted that they were being evaluated while in place until March 18.