The White House unveiled its long-awaited new coronavirus response strategy on Wednesday, a 96-page plan aimed at turning the corner on the worst public health crisis in a century, while preparing for the next threat — in part by accelerating research into vaccines that could be deployed within 100 days of the arrival of a new variant.
“We’ve reached a new moment in the fight with Covid-19,” Jeffrey D. Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, said in releasing the plan.
The plan, aimed at ushering the United States into what some are calling a “new normal,” has four main goals: protecting against and treating Covid-19; preparing for new variants; avoiding shutdowns and fighting the virus abroad.
But there is a big hitch: Much of the plan requires funding from Congress. The administration recently told congressional officials it could need $30 billion to boost funding for the pandemic response. One outside adviser to the White House, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, said in an interview that the United States needs to spend on the order of $100 billion over the next year to be fully prepared, and billions more after that.
“Congress has to think of this as an investment in biosecurity for the country,” said Dr. Emanuel, who led a team of experts in developing a far-reaching plan it shared with the White House.
The strategy comes on the heels of the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night and as U.S. new cases decline, though deaths remain high. Mr. Biden used the speech to spotlight a key component: a new a “test to treat” initiative that he said would enable Americans to get tested at a pharmacy and, if they are positive, “receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost.”
Many of the other initiatives — including the plan to quickly develop vaccines, which was announced in November — are not new. But taken together, they amount to a blueprint for the next phase of the response, though the White House insists the fight against Covid is far from over.
“Make no mistake, President Biden will not accept just ‘living with Covid’ any more than we accept ‘living with’ cancer, Alzheimer’s, or AIDS,” the plan declares.
The health secretary, Xavier Becerra, who has not joined regular Covid news briefings and has been criticized lately for keeping too low a profile, made a rare appearance on Wednesday with other top health officials.
He highlighted the plan to boost research into long Covid, the long-term symptoms that some people experience after infection, pledging to open “new centers of excellence” to provide high quality care, but that will also require congressional buy-in.
The idea behind the strategy is to get the nation out of crisis mode and to a place, Mr. Biden has said, where the virus will no longer disrupt everyday life. The plan included a pledge for the administration to work with Congress to “give schools and businesses guidance, tests and supplies to stay open, including tools to improve ventilation and air filtration.”
In interviews, experts generally lauded the plan as a good step forward. But Jay A. Winsten, director of the Harvard Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health, said even the 100-day timeline for vaccine development might not be fast enough for a highly transmissible variant like Omicron. The first Omicron sample was collected in South Africa on Nov. 8, he said; the United States reached the peak of the Omicron wave just 67 days later, on Jan. 14.
Mr. Biden came into office more than a year ago with a 200-page plan to combat Covid, which was the most pressing challenge in his nascent presidency. But a lot has changed since then.
More than 200 million Americans have been vaccinated. Two new waves — one fueled by the Delta variant, the other by Omicron — have driven up deaths to nearly 1 million. Covid treatments have been developed, including the Pfizer drug Paxlovid, which will be integral to the “test and treat” initiative.
Although those pills have been relatively scarce since they were authorized late last year, Mr. Biden said in his speech Tuesday night that “Pfizer is working overtime to get us one million pills this month and more than double that next month.”
Even as the White House asserts that things are getting better and new federal guidelines suggest 70 percent of Americans can stop wearing masks for now, large groups of people remain at risk. Children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccinates.
And an estimated seven million Americans have weak 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 tests more accessible to those groups.
Asked about the status of federal air and rail travel mask mandates, Mr. Zients noted they were being evaluated while they were in place until March 18.