White House Unveils New National COVID Preparedness Plan

White House officials on Wednesday unveiled an updated National COVID Preparedness Plan, which includes increased access to treatment, enhanced surveillance, keeping schools open, and vaccinating the world.

White House COVID Response Coordinator Jeff Zients emphasized that this was a “new moment” in the fight against the virus, with a new plan that expanded on the future COVID strategy that President Joe Biden touched upon in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Zients touted the efficacy of Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid against severe COVID and said that the White House ordered 20 million courses of the drug, with 1 million available this month and “more than double” that available in April.

He also referenced the Biden administration’s “test-to-treat” initiative, with access to free testing and treatment in “one-stop sites” such as community health centers, long-term care facilities, veterans health centers, and pharmacies.

Regarding vaccines, Zients said the government would be ready to make Pfizer’s vaccine for kids younger than age five available as soon as the FDA authorizes it. He also noted a website launching “later this month” with information on vaccines and masks in any given area.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra discussed the role that HHS will play in addressing the long-term effects of COVID — specifically, long COVID and mental health issues associated with the virus. In particular, the plan would provide “high-quality” care for long COVID, coordinate a “whole-of-government effort” to counsel children and families who have lost loved ones to COVID, and an expanded program to prevent job burnout, particularly for healthcare workers.

“We want every front-line essential worker to know that we’re with you and we’ve got your back,” Becerra said.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky shared details about the enhanced surveillance that the agency will use to assess a new variant’s “transmissibility and severity,” as well as “tabletop readiness and response exercises” conducted jointly by HHS, CDC, NIH, FDA, and the Federal Emergency Management Association.

Walensky also discussed scaling up data-monitoring efforts that connect data from local public health systems to a national system to help “forecast and model public health threats” as well as “inform prevention recommendations.”

In terms of detecting new variants, Dr. Anthony Fauci the White House chief medical advisor and NIAID director, discussed a plan that would allow “updated vaccines to be developed, approved, and manufactured in approximately 100 days.” He added that these vaccines would ideally be “broader and longer-lasting,” providing protection against both the ancestral strain and new variants.

Officials received several questions about ending mask mandates on domestic travel, such as airplanes.

Walensky said that when evaluating these mandates, which are set to expire on March 18, they will be looking at “not only the science of transmission … but also the epidemiology and frequency we may encounter in variants of concern in our travel corridors.”

She also noted that Omicron is a milder variant, and the country has been doing “a massive amount of vaccination and boosting” and teased “more to come” about this issue.

“We want to revisit this in a separate way,” Walensky said.

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