As Omicron recedes, White House shifts to a more targeted Covid strategy

WASHINGTON — The threat of the Omicron variant is receding and cities around the country are lifting their mask mandates, but the Biden administration isn’t ready to declare an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, the White House is out with a new plan focused on continued, commonsense public health measures like expanding access to coronavirus therapies and improving ventilation in indoor spaces.

While the new strategy is largely a continuation of existing efforts, it represents a shift from policies aimed at preventing the spread of Covid and toward more targeted efforts to prevent society’s most vulnerable from becoming severely ill. The overarching goal is to move to a world in which the government allows life to proceed as normal, while keeping a watchful eye for new outbreaks or viral variants.

“Because of the significant progress we’ve made, the determination and the resilience of the American people, and the work we’ve done to make tools to protect ourselves widely available, we are moving forward safely and getting back to our normal routines,” Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said at a press briefing Wednesday.

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The new plan comes on the heels of Biden’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday, in which he attempted to project confidence about the pandemic’s future course while stressing that his government wouldn’t let down its guard.

The rate of new Covid-19 infections is currently at its lowest point since July 2021. Still, though, well over 1,500 Americans are dying of the disease each day. As of Wednesday, total U.S. deaths stood at roughly 952,000. The country is likely to pass the grim milestone of 1 million total Covid deaths — easily the most of any country worldwide — within weeks.

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The administration outlined several key pillars to help the U.S. move fully beyond Covid: namely, detecting new variants; preventing future outbreaks; helping deal with broader Covid-19 fallout like recurring disease symptoms or the broader mental health crisis; and continuing efforts to vaccinate lower-income countries.

“We always must be prepared for the eventuality of another variant,” said Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top medical adviser on Covid-19. The administration has continued to scale up the country’s genomic sequencing capacity, he said.

It has also invested in preventing new outbreaks, regardless of the viral strain: Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the government has doubled down in particular on its wastewater surveillance efforts, which can help detect the total amount of virus circulating in cities.

Officials also cited the government’s procurement of monoclonal antibody and antiviral treatments used to prevent Covid symptoms from getting worse in people who’ve already been infected.

Workplaces, schools, and other crowded indoor spaces will also receive new guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency about ventilation and air quality, Zients said — a Covid-prevention element that experts say has gone ignored for two years.

The government will initiate new resilience efforts, too: namely, programs to help families deal with the costs of treating long Covid symptoms, paying for funerals and bereavement support, and funding programs to help address the country’s ongoing mental health crisis, which has only worsened since the pandemic began.

The administration warned, though, that with pandemic-response funds dwindling, it will require Congress to provide additional funding for its Covid-19 response.

“Without these investments,” the White House wrote in its plan, “many of the activities described below cannot be initiated or sustained.”

Source: STAT