The Biden administration is facing rising pressure from congressional Democrats to ramp up its efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The White House this week announced a flurry of moves, including the purchase of an additional 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests, as well as saying a plan is coming next week to make high quality masks available to the public for free.
But some Democrats and health experts are both pushing for more — and questioning why these actions were not taken months ago, before the current surge fueled by the omicron variant took hold.
Five Democratic senators led by Sen. Jacky Rosen (Nev.) released a letter to the White House on Friday expressing “grave concern” with the state of the pandemic response, saying it had too often been “reactive, rather than proactive.”
“This Administration either knew or should have known that testing shortages were occurring across the country over the past several months, and with the full expectation that the virus would likely mutate into a new variant steps to increase testing access should have happened before the current wave hit, not several weeks into the surge, with resources still not available until later this month or beyond,” the senators wrote.
Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Don Beyer (Va.), Dina Titus (Nev.), Joe Morelle (N.Y.), and Kaialiʻi Kahele (Hawaii), introduced a bill to require the administration to purchase enough rapid tests so that every American can take two a week for a year.
“The 500 [million tests] is a good start, but it’s only one and a half tests per person,” Beyer said in an interview.
On masks, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and more than 50 Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill this week to send three high quality N95 masks to every person in the U.S.
“It is an absolute scandal that in the richest country in the history of the world, high-quality masks are not more readily available to frontline workers, health care workers, and all Americans,” Sanders said.
The White House has been rolling out new measures amid the pressure, while also defending its efforts so far.
A new website will go live on Wednesday allowing people to order free rapid tests, though supplies are limited to four tests per residence. And beginning Saturday, insurers are required to cover the cost of rapid tests bought at retailers, though in some cases that will require consumers seeking reimbursement after the fact, which could be cumbersome.
Asked why the administration did not take more testing actions earlier, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that actions on testing have been a “building process” over time.
The White House notes that it previously invested $3 billion to boost rapid testing and that the supply of rapid tests in the U.S. was more than 300 million in December, up from 24 million in August. It also has a new testing coordinator, Tom Inglesby, an expert from Johns Hopkins University.
Still, President Biden has acknowledged some shortcomings on testing.
“I wish I had thought about ordering half a billion [tests] two months ago,” he told ABC News last month.
Amid the highly transmissible omicron variant, experts have also been urging the public to use better masks like N95 or KN95’s, given that simple cloth masks provide far less protection.
Biden said more details would be coming next week on how Americans can get high quality masks for free.
“I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” he said.
Asked about being “late” to providing higher quality masks, Psaki said Friday that the administration had already provided 30 million across the country and stockpiled 750 million.
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said the recent announcements are “steps in the right direction,” but agreed with Senate Democrats that the administration has been “reactive not proactive.”
“We should have upped our mask game with the alpha variant more than a year ago,” she said.
Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, likewise said that last year “the delta surge should have been the warning shot” to get more tests.
She also called for the administration to think about what steps are needed in the next phase of the virus. Once the omicron spike subsides, which could be as soon as next month, the country could be in a better place, given that people will have higher levels of immunity, though another variant always poses a risk.
“Are we going to finally roll out the N95s when most of the country has gotten it?” she asked.