March 2, 2022 -- In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, President Joe Biden urged Americans to not let their guard down against COVID-19 and pledged to make more tests and treatments available. On Wednesday, his team unveiled plans to get started.
The new National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, which officials said would require action from Congress – focuses on keeping businesses and schools open, improving access to testing and treatment, and preventing future public health crises.
“By protecting against and treating covid, preparing for any new variants, preventing economic and school shutdowns, and vaccinating the world and saving lives, the president’s COVID-19 Preparedness Plan will enable us to move forward safely to get back to our more normal routines,” said White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients at a Wednesday briefing.
Zients elaborated on the “test to treat” initiative the president mentioned during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, which would expand access to antiviral pills and other COVID-19 treatments.
This month, hundreds of one-stop sites will open across the country that will allow people to receive treatment for COVID-19 immediately after testing positive, Zients said. Locations will include local pharmacy clinics, community health centers, long-term care facilities, and veterans’ health facilities.
Congressional leaders have already been briefed on the need for near-term funding to secure more vaccines, antivirals treatments, and continued vaccines research, the White House said. The amount needed was not disclosed.
Top infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, MD, said the plan’s focus on vaccine research and development would help to ensure that any “updated vaccines can be developed, approved and manufactured in approximately 100 days.”
Along with expanding access to viral treatments and tests, Biden’s new plan would address long COVID and mental health by directing the federal government to accelerate its efforts to detect, prevent and treat those issues.
Zients called the president’s plan “robust and comprehensive,” but noted, “the execution of the plan requires additional funding from Congress.”
Some 950,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, but Biden did not mention the pandemic again until 36 minutes into his speech. He first addressed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and the infrastructure law.
Later, Biden revealed a new “test to treat” program in which people who test positive for coronavirus at a pharmacy will be offered Pfizer’s antiviral Paxlovid for free, “on the spot.” The pill reduces the chance of hospitalization by 90%, the president said. Pfizer will provide the U.S. government with 1 million pills in March and more than 2 million in April.
What’s more, starting the week of March 7, a new batch of COVID-19 tests will be made available for Americans to order for home delivery through COVIDtests.gov. The president also noted that he plans to ask Congress for more money to keep funding free vaccines, tests, masks, and treatments.
Last year, the president did not give a traditional State of the Union, instead making an address to a joint session of Congress almost 100 days after he took office. The audience was limited due to COVID-related social distancing restrictions.
For this year’s address, attendees were required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the House of Representatives chambers. But given the new CDC guidance issued Feb. 25 that relaxed mask rules, the 535 members of Congress, guests, and dignitaries who were invited to this year’s event were not required to wear masks.
But some Republicans refused to attend over the COVID testing requirement.
“I’m NOT permitted on the House floor tonight despite the fact that the 17th District of Florida voted me to represent them in the People’s House because I didn’t go through all of Dictator Pelosi’s medical protocol and COVID testing,” Florida Rep. Greg Steube said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, “I’m wearing a mask tonight at the #SOTU because we all need to remember that the immunocompromised and those over 60 remain at higher risk of severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said on Twitter.
Divisions over COVID-related restrictions and COVID vaccines are also apparent in polling. While 62% of adults in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll said they think the worst of the pandemic “is behind us,” more Democrats and independents than Republicans said that lifting restrictions could increase the number of deaths and leave immune-compromised people behind.
Biden indicated that he would continue to lift more restrictions, saying it’s “time for Americans to get back to work” and “our kids need to be in school.”
He also urged Americans to “stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: A God-awful disease.”
“Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies and start seeing each other for who we really are: fellow Americans,” the president said.