WASHINGTON — President Biden, seeking to lead the nation out of the coronavirus crisis into what some are calling a “new normal,” used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to outline the next phase of his response to the pandemic, including a new “test to treat” aimed at providing patients with new antiviral drugs as soon as they learn they are infected.
With the number of cases falling across the country, the coronavirus – perhaps the biggest challenge of Mr Biden’s first year in office – has taken a back seat to the discourse on Russian aggression in Ukraine and on the economy. Still, the president didn’t miss an opportunity to give himself a pat on the back for the latest Covid-19 trends.
“I know you are tired, frustrated and exhausted,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “But I also know this: because of the progress we have made, because of your resilience and the tools that have been given to us by this Congress, tonight, I can say that we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines. »
The White House has been working on a detailed new coronavirus response strategy, which officials said they would present on Wednesday. It is expected to address a wide range of issues, including developing new vaccines and treatments and how to keep schools and businesses open even as the pandemic worsens.
The idea behind the strategy is to get the nation out of crisis mode and get to a place, Mr. Biden said, where the virus will no longer disrupt daily life and Americans will learn to live with it. Mr. Biden spoke in broad strokes about the way forward, providing few details.
The “test to treat” initiative seems to be a central element of the new strategy. Under the program, Mr. Biden said, Americans could get tested for the coronavirus at a pharmacy and, if positive, “receive antiviral pills on site at no cost.”
Although the pills, made by Pfizer, have been relatively rare since the Food and Drug Administration cleared them late last year, Mr. Biden said in his speech that “Pfizer is working overtime to get us a million pills this month and more than double. next month.”
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide additional details, said people could receive pills through the program starting this month, including places like CVS, Walgreens and Kroger.
The initiative will also involve educating the public about the availability of new antiviral treatments, the official said, and the importance of starting them soon after symptoms appear. And it will distribute antiviral pills directly to long-term care facilities.
Mr. Biden also vowed to prepare for new variants, saying that if needed, his administration could roll out new vaccines within 100 days of a variant arriving. He called on Congress to provide new funds to the administration to stockpile more tests, masks and pills.
“I can’t promise a new variant won’t come,” Biden said. “But I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to be ready if that is the case.”
Over the past week, as top federal health officials debated the new strategy, they assessed a 136-page plan written by outside experts whose recommendations include stronger air filtration systems in public buildings, billions of research dollars and a major upgrade to the country’s public health system.
Titled “Reaching and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap for Living with Covid”, the plan assumes there will be fewer deaths from Covid-19 this year.
According to a New York Times database, an average of about 66,000 new coronavirus cases are reported each day in the United States. That’s far less than the average daily caseload of around 800,000 in January, at the height of the winter surge fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant. But that’s still more than five times the daily workload last June, before the Delta variant caused a summer surge.
Even as Mr Biden proclaims things are looking up, large segments of the US population remain at risk. Children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccination. On Monday, New York state health officials released data showing that the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech is significantly less effective at preventing infection in children ages 5 to 11. years than in adolescents or adults.
And an estimated seven million Americans have weakened immune systems, illnesses or other disabilities that make them more vulnerable to severe Covid. The White House announced last week that it was taking several steps to make masks and coronavirus testing more accessible to people with disabilities.
“We are not leaving anyone behind or ignoring anyone’s needs as we move forward,” Biden said Tuesday night.
The White House also announced measures on Tuesday to protect nursing home residents and hold providers accountable for unsafe and substandard care, including expanding inspections and financial penalties on what the White House is calling “nursing homes for bad actors” and “poorly performing establishments”.
Mr Biden has learned the hard way that predicting the course of an unpredictable virus is a dangerous business. On July 4 last year, he said the United States was “closer than ever to declaring our independence in the face of a deadly virus.” Then the Delta variant hit, and Mr. Biden’s remarks sounded naive.
Now state and local governments across the country, many led by Democrats, have dropped their masked mandates. More coronavirus precautions are likely to disappear after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines last week.
The guidelines no longer rely solely on the number of cases to assess whether masks and other safety measures are necessary; this suggests that 70% of Americans can stop wearing masks for now and no longer need to socially distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces.