As COVID-19 cases rise again with the arrival of winter and holiday gatherings, the White House on Thursday announced its plans for controlling cases this winter.
The plans include:
- Offering Americans four more free coronavirus tests per household
- Collaborating with communities to open pop-up or mobile vaccination sites
- Pre-positioning critical supplies like masks gloves and gowns from the Strategic National Stockpile
- Providing more support to nursing homes and long-term care facilities to protect the most vulnerable.
Although the administration had said it couldn’t afford to continue COVID-19 support without additional funding from Congress, it has managed to pay for these measures out of the 2021 American Rescue Plan, an administration official said in a Wednesday news conference.
COVID-19 cases have begun to tick up in the U.S. in recent weeks, with nearly 459,000 cases reported the week of Dec. 7, including nearly 3,000 deaths. COVID-19 in wastewater has fallen nationally in recent days, suggesting infections are likely to fall, although it has been climbing in some states, including Massachusetts.
Here are some of the major initiatives:
How to get free tests
People will be able to order four more free at-home coronavirus tests to be mailed to them. The tests will begin to ship starting the week of Dec. 19 and can be ordered via COVIDTests.gov, or by calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489) between 8 a.m. and midnight Eastern time any day of the week.
More free tests will also be made available at schools, community health centers, rural health clinics, long-term care facilities, and other locations.
People with health insurance can also access eight free tests per month.
Public health officials have said that anyone visiting vulnerable friends or relatives this holiday season should take a coronavirus test ahead of time to ensure they are not passing on the virus.
Protecting the most vulnerable
The administration is providing testing, vaccinations and treatments for nursing homes and long-term care facilities, whose residents are particularly vulnerable to severe COVID-19.
They also plan to release a “winter playbook” for administrators of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, summarizing important actions to reduce severe illness, including vaccinations, testing and improving indoor air quality.
Nursing home staff will now be able to administer COVID-19 vaccines to all residents.
Making sure treatments like Paxlovid are available at no cost
Although monoclonal antibodies are no longer effective, the government expects to have sufficient doses of the antiviral Paxlovid available at no cost for anyone who needs it.
Paxlovid and other prescription antivirals are recommended for people at risk of severe disease and are extremely effective at preventing hospitalization and death if given within the first five days of showing symptoms.
Staying on top of the spread of variants BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and XBB
The administration promises to continue closely monitoring emerging variants and assess their potential impacts on testing, treatments and vaccines. The BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants dominate U.S. cases, with a variety of other variants accounting for the remaining one-third of the total infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its variant reporting from wastewater and international travelers at major U.S. airports, providing an early warning of variants and trends.
The XBB variant has been raising concerns recently because it evades some natural protection against COVID-19, but “in many ways, it’s more of the same,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mass General Research Institute, both in Boston.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Lemieux and other members of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness said they are not particularly worried about any of the circulating variants. They are still effectively treated by antivirals and seem no more likely to cause severe disease in vaccinated or previously infected people than other variants.
While the BA.1 variant jumped from 10% of cases nationwide to 90% in 10 days earlier this year, “we’re not seeing a rate of increase anything like that” now, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Making COVID vaccines and boosters accessible to everyone
Administration support will include helping communities set up mobile and pop-up vaccination sites, as well as accessible vaccine clinics and at-home vaccine administration. Many of these pop-up sites will also offer free testing and treatments.
The administration is also calling on hospitals to encourage vaccination before a patient is released.
Many of those dying of COVID-19 today are those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly older people.
Vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of death eight-fold in people ages 65 to 80 and four-fold in those over 80, according to a recent CDC study, “which is a really good thing and is one of the reasons why you want to keep people up to date with vaccination,” Hanage said.
The administration has given out hundreds of millions of masks for free at pharmacies and now will expand that distribution to include food banks and community health centers among other locations.
Lemieux said he would encourage people to wear masks indoors in dense gatherings or where there are people at high risk. “I would definitely consider it,” he said, adding that he wears a mask himself when indoors with others.
Overall, he and other public health experts say, America has the tools to fight COVID-19 this winter – if people will use them.
“Our toolkit is about as good as it’s going to get for COVID-19 for the foreseeable future,” Lemieux said. “We need to make sure these tools are available to people…