The White House on Wednesday unveiled a new road map for the COVID-19 pandemic, one that envisions life going back to normal after two years of crisis, providing for people to get tested and treated for the disease, while staying vigilant for new variants and outbreaks.
"We are clearly going in the right direction, and with all the interventions we have, I believe that we are prepared for the possibility that we will get another variant, with regard to vaccines, boosters, testing, good masks and antivirals," Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, told reporters.
There are four main goals in the 96-page plan:
The newest feature of the plan is a goal to offer a one-stop "test to treat" system at hundreds of pharmacies, community health centers and other sites starting in March — places where people can confirm whether they have COVID-19 and, if they're at high risk, get treated with antivirals on the spot, at no cost.
The antiviral pills are designed to be taken within five days of the onset of symptoms, so the administration wants to find ways to cut the time it takes to find the treatments, said Natalie Quillian, the deputy White House COVID-19 response coordinator.
"You can go into a pharmacy clinic like CVS MinuteClinic, like a Walgreens clinic or others, and you can get your test, wait for your results, if you're positive, get the pills — if that's the right treatment for you," Quillian told NPR.
The government is evaluating whether to lift the requirement to wear masks on airplanes, trains and public transportation, said Jeff Zients, who leads the White House COVID-19 response team. The current rule expires on March 18. Zients said officials will consider the state of the pandemic at that time to decide whether to keep the rule in place or drop the measure.
The plan needs support from Congress to pay for it
The plan calls for Congress to boost funding for ongoing vigilance against COVID-19 to purchase treatments, shore up the testing supply and prepare for new variants.
Last spring and early summer, when COVID-19 case numbers dropped, the nascent at-home, rapid-testing market dried up. Manufacturers slowed production. Then when the delta and omicron surges hit, there weren't enough tests to meet demand. The White House argues that it will take government support to ensure tests are available when Americans need them.
"I think we're very cleareyed that a new variant could come. The one thing that's clear in the last year is how unpredictable this virus is. And so we need to build up new stockpiles of things we know we need," Quillian said in an interview. She said the White House expects to send a formal funding request to Congress soon.
More funding would also help with efforts to detect new variants by improving data collection, sequencing and wastewater surveillance systems, the White House said.
The White House has led tabletop exercises for new fictional variants with all agencies to determine what's needed to produce, authorize and deliver any new required vaccines or treatments in just 100 days — an ambitious timeline that needs funding from Congress, Zients said.
The plan calls for continued support to help vaccinate the world. So far the administration has distributed 475 million free vaccine doses to 112 countries, but that's well short of its 1.2 billion-dose pledge. Vaccinating the world is seen as key to preventing the next variant.
Immunocompromised people will have priority for protections and treatments
The road map also emphasizes making sure that people most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 don't feel left behind as normal activities resume.
The White House says it will prioritize protections for people who are immunocompromised as well as those with disabilities and older adults, giving them priority access to treatments and pushing to make sure they get boosters.
There are also plans to provide support for people who have lost a loved one to the disease.
The White House wants Congress to reinstate tax credits to cover paid sick and family leave so people working at small- and medium-size businesses can stay home if they get COVID-19 or need to care for someone who has it, Zients said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters his department needs funding to start centers of excellence for studying and treating long COVID-19.
President Biden previewed the plan in his State of the Union address
Biden ushered in this "new normal" by walking mask free down the center aisle of the House chamber to give his State of the Union address on Tuesday, then lingering after the speech, chatting and taking pictures.
It was an image of normalcy that reflects the reality many Americans have been living for months — and one Biden urged everyone else to embrace, telling Americans it's time for downtown offices to fill again, for students to be in class.
"I know some are talking about 'living with COVID-19,' '' Biden said in his address. "We will never just accept living with COVID-19. We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard."
Last summer, Biden said the U.S. was "closer than ever to declaring our independence from this deadly virus," only to get burned by surges in cases from the delta and omicron variants. This time, the administration's plan and the messaging around it are more guarded.