It’s time for America to stop letting coronavirus “dictate how we live,” President Joe Biden’s White House said Wednesday, outlining a strategy to allow people to return to many normal activities safely after two years of pandemic disturbances.
A highlight is a new “test to treat” plan to provide free antiviral pills at pharmacies to people who test positive for the virus.
The 90-page national COVID-19 contingency plan outlines initiatives and investments to continue reducing serious illness and death from the virus, while preparing for potential new variants and providing employers and schools with resources to stay open.
“We know how to keep our businesses and our schools open with the tools we have at our disposal,” said White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
It follows Biden’s Tuesday night State of the Union speech, in which he pointed to progress toward the pandemic since last year, with a dramatic reduction in cases, readily available vaccines and tests, and new therapies soon to become more available.
“This plan sets out the roadmap to help us fight COVID-19 in the future as we move America from crisis to a time when COVID-19 does not disrupt our daily lives and is something we prevent, protect against and treat,” The White House said. “We are not just going to ‘live with COVID’. Because of our work, we will no longer let COVID-19 dictate how we live.”
It tracked Biden’s statement: “Tonight I can say that we are moving safely forward, back to more normal routines. It’s time for the Americans to return to work and fill our amazing center again.”
COVID-19 cases have fallen to their lowest level since last summer in recent weeks, following a winter rise from the highly transferable omicron variant. However, deaths that delay cases by weeks are still elevated, with an average of nearly 1,700 people dying in the United States each day. Officials stress that most cases of serious illness and death in the United States occur among those who are unvaccinated or who have not received a booster dose of vaccine.
The White House’s strategy comes days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its guidelines for when to wear face masks in public indoor environments, placing more emphasis on local capacity to treat the serious illness than the total number of cases. Now, more than 70% of the country can safely remove masks indoors, the CDC says, and the percentage is expected to grow as cases continue to decline.
While most states and localities relocated to ease their mask requirements even before the CDC change, many have kept mandates in place for schools, and the federal government continues to require face masks on public transportation, including aircraft. The federal mandate is set to expire on March 18, but health officials gave no indication as to whether it would be extended.
Meanwhile, companies across the country are struggling to navigate employees’ persistent concerns about COVID-19 and the desire for flexibility in working from home. Many companies want employees back to offices.
“We need to be vigilant,” President Joe Biden said as he spoke about the coronavirus during his State of the Union speech.
A key component of the administration’s plan to convince Americans that normal activity is safe to resume is the increasing availability of an antiviral pill from Pfizer, which has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 by 90%. By the end of the month, the administration says, 1 million pills will be available, with the double ready for use in April.
A White House official said the “test-to-treat” plan will initially be launched in hundreds of pharmacies across the country, including CVS, Walgreens and Kroger, and will soon expand beyond that. Those who test positive on the spot will be able to get the antiviral pills for quick use, which dramatically reduces the risk of poor results.
The administration said it is ready to quickly administer millions of vaccine doses to children under the age of 5 once the vaccines are approved by federal regulators. While there had been hope that the first shots were approved last month, Pfizer is now awaiting the results of a study that includes a third dose of the vaccine for that age group, and it is likely to delay approval until April.
As part of the new strategy, the administration is urging Congress to reintroduce tax deductions for companies that provide paid sick leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19. The White House is also asking Congress for additional funding to invest in new COVID-19 drugs, including research into the development of pan-coronavirus vaccines that will prevent more strains and even more different types of viruses.
Meanwhile, federal officials stressed that they have greatly improved the capacity of the public health system to identify and track any new variants with new investments in surveillance testing and genomic sequencing. Zients said the administration believes it can, if necessary, approve, produce and deliver new vaccines and treatments “in just 100 days instead of many months or years.”
Biden said in his remarks Tuesday night that in addition to launching the new antiviral initiative, his administration would allow people in the United States to order another round of free tests from the government. He said that from next week, the administration will make four more free tests available to U.S. households through COVIDTests.gov, which has sent more than 270 million to nearly 70 million households since its launch in mid-January.
President Joe Biden delivered the first State of the Union speech for his presidency on Tuesday.