WASHINGTON — The White House outlined a new strategy Wednesday for the next phase of handling the pandemic: a road map for living with Covid.
The National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan includes a "test to treat" approach, which involves expediting treatments, such as Paxlovid, by allowing pharmacists to issue prescriptions on the spot for people who test positive. President Joe Biden previewed that part of the strategy in his State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday.
Biden and key administration officials have made clear that the administration wants people to feel safe in going back to work and resuming pre-pandemic activities.
The new plan ensures that as soon as a vaccine is authorized for children under five, the administration will be ready to quickly distribute it at convenient locations across the country, White House Covid coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.
"Vaccines, treatments, tests, masks — these tools are how we continue to protect people. They enable us to move forward safely and get back to our more normal routines," said Zients, adding that these tools will allow for "going out to eat at a restaurant, taking that trip that's been long delayed, arranging a playdate for your kids, attending a sports game, a movie or a concert again."
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the administration is also coordinating a full government response to support children who've lost parents to the virus and vice versa. This would include providing financial resources to cover funeral costs and for trauma and grief services, he added.
The new strategy also includes a new EPA checklist for clean air in buildings to improve the quality of indoor air through ventilation, Zients said.
The plan will require additional funding from Congress, officials said. Zients did not specify an amount when asked by reporters during the briefing, but he said he has briefed bipartisan leaders about the near-term funding that is needed and noted that the administration will finalize figures in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said that the federal government has drastically improved its ability to track cases and detect potential new variants.
Asked about the administration lifting mask-wearing requirements on airplanes and trains, Zients noted that the current mandate is in place through March 18. The administration is evaluating what to do about the requirements after that date.
The U.S. is transitioning to a new phase of the Covid pandemic, and some Americans are eager to return to life as normal. Yet with a vaccination rate of 63 percent, health experts say Covid is here to stay. The new approach comes after the White House has been listening to experts about what the “new normal” should be.
On Tuesday, Biden extended a 100 percent reimbursement of the Covid emergency response cost to states, tribes and territories, a sign that his administration sees a continued need for federal resources even as infection numbers decline across the country. Many states have used the funds to surge testing capacity.
Ahead of the strategy rollout Wednesday, health experts said there were some obvious things the federal government could do to create lasting infrastructure around detecting and treating Covid.
“It’s not rocket science to figure out what, what is needed,” said Dr. Steven Phillips, the vice president of science and strategy for Covid Collaborative, a coalition of experts in health, education and economics. Phillips in a wide-ranging interview outlined how the country can return to pre-pandemic life and what it would look like, with plentiful access to rapid testing and protecting the vulnerable. “Omicron is going to be with us for quite a long time. That’s endemicity,” he said.
Among the experts the White House consulted is Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, who said that there needs to be a communication plan in place for a potential new wave of the virus.
"We’ve had big waves in the South, and this summer I’m expecting another wave," he said. "And, if not, we should expect another wave in the winter. I don’t think we’re done with this, so what’s the anticipatory guidance to let the American people know, don’t be surprised if we have to go back into the red?"
The federal government can also create more guarantees for rapid test manufacturers, said Lindsey Dawson, a director at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Over the winter holidays and as the omicron variant surged, the U.S. was caught without adequate testing supplies. Reassuring manufacturers that the government will continue to bulk purchase tests is a significant step. Recently, the government solicited advice from manufacturers on what it can do to encourage them to quickly ramp up supply when needed, said Dawson.
Once the supply issue is settled, much of the federal government’s role will fall to the CDC to issue a new handbook for living with Covid, including how and when to use at-home test kits and helping to pave the way for quick delivery of therapeutics to the most vulnerable populations, said Phillips.
“We need to get much more specific about the actual protocols, the actual indications for the use of these rapid tests in a public health valuable way. And I think, frankly, we have a way to go there, and I’m looking for the CDC and other scientific bodies to provide some guidance for Americans,” said Dawson.