At his first White House press briefing since taking office earlier this month, COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Tuesday that the United States is at an “inflection point” in the pandemic.
On one hand, Dr. Jha said, there are “a lot more capabilities” and “a lot more tools” when it comes to combatting the pandemic — including expanding antiviral medication access for pharmacies and opening more test-to-treat sites, as well as the federal government’s new one-stop shop for COVID-19 information, COVID.gov — but more must be done in order to combat the pandemic, especially in the wake of new highly contagious variants.
“Deaths are continuing to fall,” Dr. Jha said. “We’re down to about 300 deaths today. Still too many, still too high, but doing so much better than we have throughout much of this pandemic.”
Dr. Jha said that the US needs to prepare for future mutations and variants, and called on Congress to pass much-needed COVID-19 funding to help federal health authorities do so.
“Congress has not stepped up to provide the funds that are needed for our most urgent needs,” he warned.
“None of us can predict with any certainty where exactly this pandemic is going, what the virus is going to do next,” Dr. Jha said. “All we can do is prepare and that’s what we need Congress to do is to help us prepare and be ready for whatever eventuality comes.”
Earlier this month, lawmakers announced that they had reached a bipartisan deal on $10 billion in COVID-19 funding — less than half of what President Joe Biden initially asked for and roughly $5 billion less than Democrats tried to pass in a sweeping spending bill passed last month.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who was a key liaison between parties working to find a middle ground, on Monday said the agreed-upon $10 billion would provide for “urgent COVID needs and therapeutics by repurposing unspent COVID funds primarily from the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan.”
The Utah Republican said that the funding will be used “to provide needed domestic COVID health response tools.”
“Half of the funding will be used for the development and purchase of therapeutics — potentially eliminating the need for future vaccine and mask mandates,” he said, adding: “Importantly, this bill is comprised of dollar-for-dollar offsets and will not cost the American people a single additional dollar.”
The agreement does not, however, include funding for global vaccination campaigns, which members of the Biden administration have stressed as imperative in stopping the emergence and spread of new variants around the world.
COVID-19 relief talks stalled before Congress’ Easter recess because Republicans attempted to add an amendment blocking President Biden from reversing Title 42, a Trump-era border policy that allows the US to quickly expel migrants seeking asylum in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Jha warned Tuesday what might happen if Congress does not move to pass the COVID funding quickly.
“Let me give you a couple of concrete examples of what will happen if we do not get the funding we need,” Dr. Jha said. “You may have heard if you’ve been tracking this, that FDA is working with Moderna and Pfizer, looking at what the next generation of vaccines may look like. And it is possible that we may get a whole new generation of vaccines in the fall or winter, that may be more effective and more durable. None of those are going to be available to the American people, if we don’t get more funding.”
“We are tracking new treatments that are coming online that are as effective maybe even more effective, with fewer side effects,” he continued. “Those treatments will not be available to Americans, because other countries are stepping up and making purchases for those treatments, while we await funding from Congress.”
Dr. Jha said Tuesday that Congress must not only needs to pass the funding for domestic COVID-19 initiatives, but the US must also do more to bolster international efforts.
“Some people in this country who sometimes think that we can take a domestic only approach to a global pandemic,” he said. “That’s not a thing. You can’t do that. If we’re gonna fight a global pandemic, we have to have a global approach.”
“That means we need funding to ensure that we’re getting shots in arms around the world,” Dr. Jha continued. “His president and his leadership have enabled us to now have plenty of vaccines for the world. But vaccines don’t save lives, right? Vaccinations c. We have got to finish the job, we’ve got to get the resources we need to get shots in arms so we can actually vaccinate the world and help bring this pandemic to a close.”
Dr. Jha’s comments came just hours after the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated and twice-boosted. Dr. Jha said the news is a reminder that “we have a very very contagious variant out there.”
“It is going to be hard to ensure that no one gets COVID in America, that’s not even a policy goal,” Dr. Jha said. “The goal of our policies should be, obviously minimize infections whenever possible, but to make sure people don’t get seriously ill.
“The best ways of doing that are making sure people are vaccinated and boosted, as the Vice President is, and making sure we have plenty of therapeutics,” he added.
Dr. Jha disagreed when asked if it was just a matter of time before President Biden gets COVID-19.
“Of course it is possible that the president, like any other American, could get COVID,” he said. “The bottom line is: He is vaccinated and boosted. He is very well protected. He’s got very good protocols around him to protect him from getting infected.”
“But there is not 100% anything,” he continued. “And I think the key focus has got to be we got to continue protecting the president. That’s what the protocols are around him are designed to do.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism