The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled a new strategy for battling COVID-19 that focuses on sustained investment in testing and treatments and calls on Congress for more funding to protect the immunocompromised.
The plan is structured around four pillars: protecting against current infections, preparing for new variants, preventing shutdowns and administering vaccines abroad. It follows a broad rollback of federal masking guidance last week.
The White House did not announce the repeal of any further COVID-19 restrictions. But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing that the agency will revisit the order to wear masks on transportation like planes in mid-March, with “more to come.”
In addition to current monitoring efforts and investments in testing, vaccines and therapeutics, the White House said it will accelerate efforts around new and improved treatments, as well as addressing long-term effects of COVID-19. The administration will also establish “one-stop” locations for tests and treatments at pharmacies, community health centers and long-term care centers.
Biden weathered backlash after he failed to invest in testing supplies, the importance of which became clear last year as the omicron variant overtook the U.S. right before the holidays. Biden has also never produced a promised testing plan after criticizing the Trump administration for its state-focused approach.
The president launched other testing efforts in recent months, including a federal site where consumers can order up to four tests per household for free. Only about half of the initial 500 million tests made available have been claimed, according to the Associated Press, and Biden announced during his State of the Union speech Tuesday that households can order a second batch.
The new COVID-19 strategy also calls for accelerating variant-specific vaccines and adding at-home tests, antiviral pills and masks for the general public to the Strategic National Stockpile. The administration is calling on Congress to provide paid leave to small employers dealing with COVID-19-related absences.
Additionally, the White House plans to increase supplies of protective equipment and oxygen to other countries, and boost investment in the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access.
The plan also calls on more funding from Congress to bolster therapeutics and efforts to prioritize individuals with compromised immune systems. The administration requested $30 billion from lawmakers last month for domestic efforts and reportedly an extra $5 billion for efforts abroad.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra joined the White House’s public COVID-19 briefing for the first time Wednesday, after frustration over media access and scrutiny on his low profile during the pandemic spilled into public view.
But Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, called him an “essential partner” during the briefing, and Becerra pointed to a plan to make an emergency logistics hub — the HHS Coordination, Operations and Response Element — permanent under HHS as part of the ongoing team effort.
“Now that it is permanently housed here at HHS, you’ll continue to see much of the execution — once the plans are in place and the president gives the signal — emanating from HHS,” Becerra said.