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President Biden's new COVID plan puts the focus on testing and treatment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There was a striking image last night - President Biden walking through the chamber of the House without a mask, greeting and talking with lawmakers, most of them also without masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Last year, COVID-19 kept us apart. This year, we're finally together again. Tonight...

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: It was like his State of the Union was kind of getting back to normal, and Biden said the country has reached a new moment as the pandemic enters its third year. Today, his team rolled out a plan for this next phase, and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here to explain it. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: All right. What's the plan?

KEITH: A lot - it is 100 pages packed dense with plans for everything from increased COVID surveillance in wastewater systems to getting people treated for COVID quickly. It's basically a road map that says cases are way down now. Masks are coming off. But what does the country have to do to make sure that vulnerable people who do catch COVID don't die or spend months in the hospital? And what does the country have to do to prepare for the potential of another dangerous variant? The biggest new announcement is what the White House COVID team is calling test to treat, which President Biden also previewed last night.

SHAPIRO: All right. So let's say somebody is feeling COVID-like symptoms. How would test to treat work?

KEITH: The idea is that if you think you have COVID and you're high risk, you could go get tested at a clinic right away. And then if they confirm it, they will give you these new antiviral pills right away for free. There's a treatment called Paxlovid from Pfizer. You have to take it within five days of getting symptoms for it to really work. And the government has been building up its stockpiles of these pills and is continuing to build those up. I asked Natalie Quillian, the White House deputy COVID coordinator, how this would work once it's up and running.

NATALIE QUILLIAN: So you can go into a pharmacy clinic like CVS MinuteClinic, like a Walgreens clinic or others, and you can get your test, wait for your results. If you're positive, get the pills - if that's the right treatment for you. We'll have hundreds of these sites initially starting in March, and we'll build out more from there.

KEITH: There are a few wrinkles. This program isn't set up yet. They're aiming to have hundreds of test to treat sites online by the end of this month and will keep expanding from there. And someone has to prescribe these treatments. So these sites will have to be at pharmacies with clinics or at community health centers where there are doctors on hand. But people should also be able to get a prescription even now from their primary care provider if they have one.

SHAPIRO: There are so many proposals in here, from free tests to free treatments. I remember the president saying in the State of the Union last night, I'm going to be coming back here and asking for some money. How much will it cost?

KEITH: And they're back. We don't know yet. Quillian says they are working with Congress on this plan and will send over a formal request for more funding soon. As an example, the White House has determined that the government needs to help prop up the home COVID testing industry. Production of tests dramatically slowed last year when demand for tests fell because nobody was getting COVID, only then for there not to be enough supply when the delta and omicron waves hit.

QUILLIAN: And I think we're very cleareyed that a new variant could come. The one thing that's clear in the last year is how unpredictable this virus is. And so we need to build up new stockpiles of things we know we need. Kids' masks is something we've never stockpiled in this country. We need to do that moving forward. At-home tests, never stockpiled - we need to do that moving forward.

KEITH: Also on the wish list is more research funding and more funding for variant surveillance.

SHAPIRO: So how much can people really expect life to return to normal?

KEITH: Well, in many parts of the country, things are already humming along like the pandemic never happened. In other parts of the country, masks are beginning to come off. One place where they haven't yet is airplanes and public transportation. And the White House said today that they are reviewing that policy, and a decision could come as soon as the middle of the month. But the White House has learned from past overconfidence, and they are being measured in how they talk about the future, saying that this pandemic isn't necessarily over even if the numbers look really good right now.

SHAPIRO: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.