Looking Beyond COVID-19, US Health Officials Outline Next Steps to Fight Disease

From one-stop testing and treatment sites to boosting research and surveillance, Biden administration health officials expanded on the COVID-19 plan the president announced in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but the plan will require additional funding from Congress.

The day after President Joe Biden announced a new phase in the country’s fight against COVID-19, the administration’s’ top health officials outlined more details about the plan and said guidance about masking on public travel would be reevaluated later this month.

The National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan focuses on vaccines and treatments, preventing shutdowns, preparing for new variants, and continuing to assist in global vaccination efforts.

Hundreds of one-stop sites will open this month in local pharmacies, community health centers, nursing homes, and veteran's health centers stocked with COVID-19 tests and the antiviral drug from Pfizer, said Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. If an individual tests positive, they would be supplied with a 5-day course of Pfizer’s nirmatrelvir tablets and ritonavir tablets, sold together as Paxlovid, which must be taken within the first 5 days of symptoms.

“We're launching the ‘Test to Treat’ initiative so people can get tested at a pharmacy, and if they’re positive, receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost,” Biden said Tuesday night. The US has a contract with Pfizer for the pills; Zients said 1 million courses would be available this month and 2 million next month and that 20 million courses have been ordered. The pills are 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations.

The media briefing with Zients; Anthony Fauci, MD, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the president’s chief medical advisor; HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra; and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, reviewed how the administration envisions the country will move beyond the crisis phase of the pandemic, while simultaneously being prepared for new variants.

Asked if they were prepared to lift remaining mask requirements for public travel, officials said they would reexamine both later this month. Last Friday, the CDC released new guidance that said most healthy adults living in areas where there is a low or medium threat of COVID-19 overwhelming hospitals can remove masks in indoor settings.

Asked to provide a funding amount to fulfill all aspects of the president’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, Zients said the amount is still being finalized.

Becerra said the president’s pandemic response would become a permanent part of HHS, organized under Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

If Congress agrees to fully fund the plan, HHS would work to establish “centers of excellence” to care for patients with long COVID, Becerra said. In addition, HHS will seek to support “people dealing with mental health–related challenges, including an expanded program to prevent job burnout and support the mental well-being of our nation's health care workforce. We want every frontline essential health care worker to know we’re with you.”

Other parts of the president's plan include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency recommendations to create cleaner air in buildings and improving indoor air quality
  • Surveillance, including through national wastewater monitoring and the CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program
  • Expanding capacity in genomic surveillance in order to quickly identify even low levels of new variants
  • Additional investment in treatment

In addition, Facui said there are some candidates for a pan–SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in preclinical or phase 1 trials.

Asked if the federal public health emergency might be lifted, Walensky said it is reevaluated every 4 to 8 weeks and has been throughout the pandemic, now more than 2 years old worldwide.

Fauci said the daily caseload is about 68,000 a day. In January, during the Omicron surge, it was about 800,000 a day. Almost a million Americans have died from the virus.

As part of the plan, the Surgeon General's office will issue a request for information from researchers and organizations to understand more about the impact of COVID-19 misinformation, including quality of care, health decisions, health costs, worker morale and safety, and the implications for future pandemics.

Zients said 216 million Americans are vaccinated against the virus and 2 of 3 eligible adults have received a booster.