Biden administration shifts toward new COVID-19 phase

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The Biden administration has made a marked shift toward a new phase where COVID-19 is no longer treated as a crisis, rolling out a series of new programs aimed at increasing access to treatment and boosting vaccine capacity for the future.

The change comes amid major strides in recent weeks including new case counts that have plummeted from 800,000 per day in January to 60,000, according to a New York Times tracker.

President Biden sought to highlight this shift in his State of the Union address Tuesday, saying the virus “no longer need control our lives.” Mask mandates in the House chamber had been lifted just before his address to a joint session of Congress.

But the programs the administration aims to roll out require new funding from Congress, which could be held up by GOP lawmakers who don’t want to allocate more money toward fighting the virus.

There is also the possiblity of a new variant that may evade the protection of vaccines that, for the third time in less than a year, again hangs as a threat over recent progress.  

But data shows hospitalizations are around 47,000, down from 160,000 in January, still mostly concentrated among the unvaccinated, showing proof that vaccinations provide much stronger protection against severe illness. 

In addition to vaccinations, the availability of new treatments, notably a pill from Pfizer called Paxlovid that reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent, puts the country in a much better place.

“It’s definitely entered a new phase,” said Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. “We’re in a massively different place in terms of the amount of virus in the community.”   

Experts have pointed to ramping up the availability of Paxlovid, which was initially in short supply, as a key step in preparing for the future.  

The administration took some steps in that direction this week, announcing a new “test to treat” program that will allow people to get tested at a pharmacy and get pills on the spot if they are positive.  

Other proposed steps include investments in testing capacity to avoid a repeat of the shortages around Christmas if there is another surge and expanding vaccine production capacity to make an additional 1 billion doses per year.  

Those steps require new funding from Congress, though, which some Republicans have resisted, pointing to the billions already spent on the virus.  

The administration has outlined the need for $30 billion focused on the domestic response and $5 billion for global vaccinations to help prevent a new variant from arising.  

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Wednesday led 35 other Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), in a letter pressing the administration for a “full accounting” of money already spent “before we would consider” new money.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), though, called for quick passage of new appropriations Wednesday, ahead of a March 11 deadline for funding the government.  

“Some of our Republican colleagues seem to be saying ,‘we don’t need this now,’ ” Schumer said. “We do need this now while we still have the chance — if Congress waits until another variant arrives, it will be too late.” 

One of the most noticeable changes at the State of the Union was the lack of masks, which came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued long-awaited guidance on Friday saying about 70 percent of the country no longer needed to wear masks. The mask guidance in the House was the result of the Capitol physician determining they were now optional.

Even before that guidance, many Democratic governors had been dropping mask mandates for indoor businesses and schools.  

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with their newfound move away from mask mandates.  

“Let’s be clear: The science on masking hasn’t changed, just the politics,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 2 Republican in the House. “Throughout the entire pandemic, Democrats have ignored their own masking rules while forcing children to wear them at school, and even outside on extremely hot summer days.” 

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, though, said that “things have dramatically changed” as the omicron wave has descended, helping allow for the virus conditions to be right for lifting mask mandates.  

The new mask rules have provoked some concern for people who are at higher risk, including those with weakened immune systems.  

Experts, though, noted that wearing a high-quality mask like a N95 or KN95 helps protect the wearer even if other people are not wearing masks.  

There are also new tools, such as AstraZeneca’s Evusheld to help prevent COVID-19 in immunocompromised people, and Paxlovid, a very effective treatment.  

Still, the proclamations of a new phase of the virus are uncertain given the looming possibility of a new, more dangerous variant.  

Biden last year touted progress over July Fourth only to see the delta variant soon take off. Last Thanksgiving, the newly detected omicron variant caused an explosion in cases across the country, including among the vaccinated and boosted. But that wave has subsided considerably in recent weeks.

“I can’t promise a new variant won’t come, but I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does,” Biden said in his speech Tuesday.  

“This is not ‘mission accomplished’ and it’s not this glorious COVID-free world,” said Wachter, of the University of California-San Francisco.  

Of the risk of a new variant, he said, “The messaging has to be: That’s possible and we’re going to be as ready for it as we can be.”

Tags Charles Schumer coronavirus covid-19 pandemic case decline biden administration positive shift hospitalizations unvaccinated vaccine testing Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Steve Scalise
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