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With COVID easing, the White House has a plan for things to return to normal

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As the pandemic eases, President Biden has announced a new plan aimed at getting things back to normal. With the recognition that COVID will not be eradicated, the administration's strategy aims to manage any future outbreaks with improved systems of surveillance, testing and treatment. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to discuss all of this. Allison, the White House released a 96-page strategic plan. What's new about it?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Well, for starters, it aims to address a problem, a disconnect, really, A. At a time when it's easy to get tested and diagnosed, and there's new antiviral medicines to effectively treat COVID, which have been a real breakthrough, linking testing to treatments has turned out to be a problem. There has not been a system to get these pills to the people who need them most, quickly, when they can be most beneficial and keep people out of the hospital. So the new strategy aims to fix this. Here's President Biden's COVID adviser, Jeff Zients, explaining

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JEFF ZIENTS: To ensure these lifesaving treatments are easily accessible, the president's plan launches a new test-to-treat initiative to provide individuals access to testing and treatment for free, all in one stop.

AUBREY: So the way it works, people will be able to go to a pharmacy, get tested. And if they're positive and at high risk, walk away with an antiviral medication. Zients said Hundreds of one-stop sites will open this month, including at community health clinics and long-term care facilities.

MARTINEZ: All right. So just so I'm clear - a better system to quickly treat people diagnosed with COVID. But what about preventing another wave or another surge of infections? What about that?

AUBREY: Well, the plan focuses a lot on scaling up the surveillance systems that have been developed over the last two years. For instance, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pointed to the rapid expansion of wastewater surveillance. Turns out, analyzing our sewage gives a quick snapshot of the amount of virus in an area. And it can also detect specific variants of concern. So this really could serve as a kind of early warning system of another outbreak.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Wastewater can detect an increase in cases four to six days before we might see these cases show up through a rise in positive tests. When it was first released publicly two weeks ago, data from the National Wastewater Surveillance System included 400 testing sites across the country, representing over 50 million people.

AUBREY: And she says they are adding more sites every day, which is important because as cases have declined so much, which is great, people won't be inclined to do a COVID test every time someone in their family has a runny nose or a sniffle. So with less testing, surveilling wastewater is a good way to keep tabs on the virus. It's a form of passive surveillance.

MARTINEZ: Yep. Another key part of the strategic plan has to do with vaccines. What's that vision?

AUBREY: You know, the vision is that the U.S. continues to help vaccinate people around the globe, and also to continue developing new types of vaccines, ones that provide broader or longer lasting immunity - or even variant-specific vaccines. At a White House briefing to unveil this yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the goal is this...

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Updated vaccines can be developed, approved and manufactured in approximately 100 days.

AUBREY: And the administration will be asking Congress for more money, which they say is needed to parlay these strategic plans into action.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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