The White House released a 96-page plan on Wednesday to shift the fight against Covid-19 and “help move America forward safely”, past a crisis jogging to a new “normal”.
Announcement of the plan follows promises made in Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech late on Tuesday, which emphasized rapid rollout of a new “test to treat” model with free anti-viral pills after a positive test.
This comes just a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) loosened mask guidance nationally, as more and more Democratic leaders have lifted pandemic-era restrictions and with the president urging workers to return to the office in-person.
“We are moving forward safely, getting back to our more normal routines, and under the latest CDC recommendations most Americans in most of the country can now be mask-free,” said the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, Jeff Zients. Vaccinated Americans, he said, “have an extremely high level of protection against Covid, and it’s extremely unlikely you’ll end up in the hospital if you get the virus”.
The administration’s plan has four main pillars: protect against and treat Covid-19 cases, prepare for new variants, prevent business and school closures and continue to distribute vaccines globally. Within those pillars are a mix of short- and long-term goals, many of which will require congressional funding.
In the short-term, a “test to treat” model is expected to be rolled out this month. The model will allow people to be tested for Covid-19 and receive antiviral medication in “one step” at pharmacies, veterans’ centers and long-term care facilities nationally. The White House has also said it will seek to buy more vaccines, treatments such as monoclonal antibodies and antiviral pills, and tests and masks.
Beyond the short-term goals, administration officials proposed a slate of long-term investments, including research for a pan-Covid-19 vaccine, national “centers of excellence” to treat so-called long Covid, and the ability to develop, manufacture and approve a vaccine within 100 days should a new variant arise.
“We will have to contend with Covid at some level for some time to come,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser. “This ongoing research investment is not only helping us turn the corner on Covid-19, but is vital to helping us prepare for future pandemics.”
However, how much funding the administration is asking for remains unclear. Zients said the White House would “communicate that number to Congress” as it is finalized. It has already briefed congressional leaders on the need for short-term purchases.
The White House announcement and State of the Union address also came with a new look and feel. At the State of the Union, Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, were all mask-free. So, too, were White House officials when they announced the new Covid-19 plan, notably in-person rather than through a group video call.
The White House has repeatedly said this is not a plan to “live with Covid”, any more than Americans “accept ‘living with’ cancer, Alzheimer’s, or Aids”.
The new strategic footing from the administration has received a mixed response. Some public health leaders reacted with excitement to the “test to treat” plan, but revised CDC guidance has received a more tepid response.
Critics have argued that the widespread end of masking shifts the burden of preventing Covid-19 to “vulnerable individuals”, and could be premature given past pandemic surges. However, the mood of the country may have already shifted – Americans of every political stripe have reported a high degree of frustration and exhaustion with the pandemic, according to recent surveys.
Progress to global vaccination has been slow, putting the world at risk of new variants. To date, 64.4% of the world has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, but there is a gulf between high- and low-income countries. just 13% of people in low-income nations have received a vaccine, compared with 79% in high- and upper-middle-income nations.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism