WASHINGTON (AP) – With the nation longing for a new normal after its long battle with coronavirus, U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra warned Thursday that vaccines, tests and treatments will be “stuck on the ground” unless Congress provides the extra funds the White House has required.
“We have reached a turning point,” Becerra said in an interview with The Associated Press. “How well we pivot is on us.”
Omicron variant BA.2, which causes a virus setback in Europe and Asia, is gaining ground in the United States, although the overall case here is still in decline. And Becerra said a financial stalemate with Capitol Hill could hamper the Biden administration’s promising new strategy called “Test to Treat.”
Under that plan, people could go to their local pharmacy to get a COVID test, and if they were positive, they could receive medication they could take at home. A “one-stop shop”, he called it.
But “if you do not have the dollars to let it fly, you’re stuck,” Becerra said. “You’re stuck on the ground.”
In a comprehensive interview, Becerra also expressed concern about cases arising among children as schools’ lifting mask demands.
Schools have become a hotspot in the COVID response, with some parents objecting to disguise claims as a violation of personal freedom, and others being reluctant to bring their children near potential risks. With the pendulum now swinging in the direction of masking, Becerra said he hoped the cautious ones would not be appointed.
“I hope there is no stigma of a child,” he said. “If a parent says, ‘I want my child to wear a mask,’ then it’s good for them.”
He also said his Department of Health and Human Services is trying to prepare so that millions of people do not lose health insurance if their eligibility for Medicaid lapses when the government ends the official COVID public health emergency. During the pandemic, Congress has provided more money to state Medicaid programs. But in return, states have been barred from killing the rolls.
A more comfortable new normal is within reach, Becerra said, but it depends on two things. One is the virus, which has proven difficult to control. The second is Americans’ sense of personal responsibility. With less than half of the eligible population now boosted, even though medical experts weigh a new, 4th round of shots, more appeals for personal responsibility could be tuned out.
Asked about the likelihood of a return to a more relaxed and normal lifestyle, Becerra said, “If everyone does their part, then yes.”
But he quickly added, “If not, get ready. This thing is hard to tame. COVID has taken us on a wild ride.”
The White House and Congress are in a stand-off over President Joe Biden’s $ 22.5 billion request to continue the government’s COVID response this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to get a $ 15.6 billion package, but various objections from Democrats as well as Republicans have prevented an agreement from going through. The White House says the money for some efforts, including the purchase of more booster doses and for monoclonal antibody treatments, will run out by the end of this month. Also at risk: free COVID care for uninsured persons.
Regarding the “Test to Treat” program, Becerra said it would help people get medication shortly after they become infected, which is heading toward potential hospitalization.
“Test to Treat is indispensable,” he said. “You go to great lengths to avoid the spread of COVID.”
But right now, the opportunity is not widely available. Pharmacies “places do not grow on trees, such as money does not grow on trees and it costs money,” Becerra said.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has had trouble trying to communicate clearly with the public about COVID risks and countermeasures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an HHS agency, has come under particular criticism for providing complicated, changing guidance.
But Becerra said people who spread misinformation about the coronavirus must bear most of the blame for Americans’ confusion.
“Researchers have communicated quite clearly with the American people what to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, someone else decides to skew or skew the message or completely distort in ways that are untrue.”
Becerra compared the pandemic to a fire with five alarms that are under control but still dangerous.
“You have to have a sense that things have stabilized,” before trying to move on from COVID, he warned.
“We need to reach a point where we believe that the state of health of the country and our people is sufficiently stabilized,” he said. “I think we’re getting closer and closer to the point where we see no need to have the five alarms.”