The White House on Wednesday outlined a new strategy in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing a vision of less disruptive interventions and saying America is ready to stop letting the virus "dictate how we live."
The 90-page National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan comes as cases have fallen dramatically, while vaccines and tests are readily available in the country. The plan spells out initiatives and investments to continue to drive down serious illness and deaths from COVID-19 while preparing for potential new variants and providing employers and schools the resources to remain open.
"This plan lays out the roadmap to help us fight COVID-19 in the future as we move America from crisis to a time when COVID-19 does not disrupt our daily lives and is something we prevent, protect against, and treat," the White House said. "We are not going to just 'live with COVID.' Because of our work, we are no longer going to let COVID-19 dictate how we live."
One highlight is a new "test to treat" plan to provide free antiviral pills at pharmacies to people who test positive for the virus.
COVID-19 cases have fallen to their lowest level since last summer in recent weeks, after a winter spike from the highly transmissible omicron variant. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current 7-day moving average for positive cases now hovers around 68,000 compared to more than 807,000 in mid-January.
Deaths, though, which lag cases by weeks, are still elevated, with an average of nearly 1,700 people dying in the U.S. each day. Officials emphasize that most instances of serious illnesses and death in the U.S. occur among those who are unvaccinated or who have not received a booster dose of vaccine.
"We know how to keep our businesses and our schools open with the tools that we have at our disposal," said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks on the January jobs reports during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House February 4, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
The strategy comes on the heels of Biden's State of the Union address, in which he repeated that the U.S. would "never just accept living with COVID-19" and highlighted steps to continue combating the virus to "move forward safely."
Nearly half of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests the Biden administration recently made available to the public still have not been claimed as virus cases plummet and people feel less urgency to test. Meanwhile, the CDC loosened its guidance, saying people can stop wearing masks if they live in counties where the virus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals — accounting for more than 70% of the U.S. population.
Multiple states are also easing pandemic-induced restrictions. Schoolchildren in California, Oregon and Washington will no longer be required to wear masks as part of new indoor mask policies the Democratic governors of all three states announced jointly on Monday.
"With declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West, California, Oregon and Washington are moving together to update their masking guidance," the governors said in a statement. There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states, which have had some of the strictest coronavirus safety measures during the pandemic.
The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, announced Sunday that the state’s masking requirements in schools would be lifted by March 2. New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts and others recently made similar adjustments to ease restrictions for schools.
A key component of the Biden administration's plan, to convince Americans that it is safe to resume normal activities, is the increasing availability of an antiviral pill from Pfizer that has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 by 90%. By the end of the month, the administration says, 1 million pills will be available, with double that ready for use in April.
A White House official said the "test-to-treat" plan will initially roll out in hundreds of pharmacies across the country, including CVS, Walgreens, and Kroger locations, and would soon expand beyond that. Those who test positive at the sites will be able to obtain the antiviral pills for quick use, dramatically reducing the risk of bad outcomes.
The administration said it stands ready to rapidly administer millions of vaccine doses to children under 5 once the vaccines are approved by federal regulators. While there had been hope for the first shots to be authorized last month, Pfizer is now waiting on the results of a study including a third dose of the vaccine for that age group, and that will likely delay approval until April.
As part of the new strategy, the administration is calling on Congress to reinstitute tax credits for businesses that provide paid sick leave for employees who are sick with COVID-19. The White House is also asking Congress for additional funding to invest in new COVID-19 drugs, including research into the development of pan-coronavirus vaccines that would prevent against multiple strains and even several different types of viruses.
Meanwhile, federal officials emphasized they have greatly improved the public health system's capacity to identify and track any potential new variants, with new investments in surveillance testing and genomic sequencing. Zients said the administration believes that if needed, it can authorize, produce and deliver new vaccines and treatments "in just 100 days rather than in many months or years."
Biden, in his remarks Tuesday night, said that in addition to starting the new antiviral initiative, his administration would allow people in the U.S. to order another round of free tests from the government. He said that starting next week, the administration would make available four more free tests to U.S. households through COVIDTests.gov, which has sent more than 270 million to nearly 70 million households since it launched in mid-January.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.