White House details 4-step plan to keep America open while preparing for future COVID-19 surges

This morning, the Biden administration released a 96-page strategy outlining tactics to mitigate COVID-19 cases and prepare for future surges with limited shutdowns. 

The National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan was highlighted by the president during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address and details four primary goals the government will be focused on in the months and years to come: to protect against and treat COVID-19, to prepare for new variants of COVID-19, to prevent economic and educational shutdowns and to drive more vaccination outside of the U.S.

Speaking this morning, members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team and other public officials repeatedly stressed that achieving these goals as laid out in the plan will require Congress to sign off on new financial support.

“The president’s plan is robust and comprehensive, and I want to emphasize that execution of the president’s plan requires additional funding,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients said in a virtual press briefing. “[The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)] has laid out some immediate funding needs for Congress. We’ll need additional funding for medium- and long-term priorities and will be working with Congress in the weeks ahead.”

Zients declined to specify exactly how much funding the plan would require, saying the administration is still finalizing the numbers but would communicate a price tag to Congress when possible. 

In the text of the preparedness plan, the administration wrote that America has “weathered” the dwindling omicron wave with “minimal disruption” and, compared to January 2021, now has substantially more tools to protect against COVID-19. 

“Vaccines, treatments, tests, masks—these tools are how we continue to protect people. They enable us to move forward safely and get back to our more normal routines,” Zients said. 

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The response coordinator said the administration will continue to support widespread vaccination efforts and will have shots ready across the country for young children as soon as they are authorized. 

The administration also highlighted its order of 20 million courses of antiviral treatments from Pfizer and announced that it will have 1 million additional courses available in March and another 2.5 million for April. 

As mentioned by the president during the State of the Union, hundreds of new “test to treat” centers that offer free testing and, if positive, treatments in a single location will be opening this month across settings like pharmacy clinics, community healthcare centers, long-term care facilities and veterans’ health centers, Zients said. 

Additionally, the government will launch a website later this month that will instruct individuals on where to find masks, vaccines or other community-specific COVID-19 information.

The president and the response team said that starting next week, those who have already ordered COVID-19 tests through the government’s covidtests.gov website will be able to sign up for a second free shipment. This comes shortly after reports that nearly half of the 500 million tests secured by the government for this initiative had yet to be claimed. 

For those who have been impacted by the disease, the preparedness plan calls for new investments into improving mental health and long-COVID care. 

“Building on our ongoing work already at [the National Institutes of Health (NIH)], we’ll further expand our research and ramp up our data sharing across the federal government in collaboration with academic, industry and state and local governments,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday. “And, if we get the funding from Congress, we will launch new centers of excellence in communities across the country to provide high-quality care to individuals experiencing long-COVID and better understand the symptoms they’re facing.”

Accompanying these initiatives are new surveillance and research efforts primarily intended to detect and respond to novel variants. 

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According to the plan, federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NIH will upgrade data collection, virus sequencing and wastewater surveillance campaigns. The agencies have also been equipped with a “variant playbook” instructing them on how to quickly assess the severity and transmissibility of a new variant and kick-start work on treatments and vaccines. 

“The U.S. government has also developed a series of plans in coordination with manufacturers for the accelerated development, approval, manufacturing and delivery of updated vaccines, tests and treatments,” the administration wrote in the preparedness plan. “These expedited plans and processes suggest that updated vaccines can be deployed in 100 days instead of many months or years.”

While the preparedness plan reiterates the nation’s commitment to donating 1.2 billion vaccine doses and the 475 million doses already delivered, it underscored the need to keep up these and other similar efforts “both because it’s the right thing to do and [because it’s] in our collective interest” to reduce opportunities for future variants. 

Back at home, the plan doubles down on commitments to avoid future economy and education shutdowns that have been a primary focus of Biden’s political opponents.  

Among other initiatives, the administration said it wants to provide more guidance and technical assistance in areas such as indoor ventilation, reinstate tax credits for small- and midsized businesses offering paid sick and family leave for COVID-related absences, and provide other tools and funds for early care and education organizations to “stay safely open and to continue supporting our families.”

“Our path forward relies on giving schools and businesses the tools they need to prevent economic and educational shutdowns, so that our students can remain safe in school, our workers can be safe at work, and our economy can continue to grow,” the administration wrote.

The government’s new roadmap comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to decline from mid-January’s omicron peak and governors from red and blue states alike pressured the administration for a detailed COVID-19 off-ramp. 

The plans are also hot on the heels of new masking guidance from the CDC that lifted widespread masking recommendations in public or in schools for most U.S. counties. Still, a portion of the public as well as healthcare professional organizations like the American Medical Association voiced concerns about the rollback on behalf of millions of unvaccinated minors and others still at medical risk of COVID-19.