We are in a complicated moment in the pandemic. Covid-19 infections in the US are relatively low, and hospitalizations are near the lowest levels they have been at any point since March 2020. Nearly 220 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and more than 100 million are boosted as well. At such moments, it can be tempting to think the pandemic is over.
Yet infections, while low, are rising again in many parts of the country – driven by a new and more transmissible subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2. There is little reason to expect BA.2 will cause the kind of surge we saw last winter, but it bears careful tracking. And while deaths are declining, hundreds of Americans are still dying from Covid-19 each day.
We have a choice to make: We can wait and see what happens next, or we can use this moment as an opportunity to prepare. We can invest in the strategies that will save lives, protect our most vulnerable, keep schools open and keep the economy going when the next surge hits.
After more than two years of the pandemic and numerous surges, the right answer is clear: We need to prepare now so we can finally get ahead of this virus and be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.
We should assume there will be more challenges. Omicron is highly contagious, and many Americans still have inadequate or waning immunity, which means we remain vulnerable to more surges of infections that have the potential to strain hospitals, cause spikes in deaths and leave our health care system even more battered than it is today.
Every four to six months since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen the emergence of a significant variant, including Delta in the spring of 2021 and Omicron in late fall of 2021. There is little reason to think we are done with viral evolution or that we won’t see more transmissible or immune-evasive variants in the future.
We could get lucky. But counting on luck isn’t a strategy. Preparation is a strategy.
There are a number of things we need to do to prepare.
First, we need to continue to strengthen our surveillance system, so we can identify variants early and forecast potential surges. This includes expanding wastewater surveillance, which can give us early insights into rising case rates and help us track infections in the community.
Second, we need to maintain our testing capacity. The Biden administration has dramatically strengthened domestic testing manufacturing, increased the number of ways Americans can get tested for free and sent 250 million free at-home tests directly to households across the country. But we must sustain that progress to stay prepared. Stockpiling tests now, when the demand for them is low, will keep domestic manufacturing lines open for surge production and allow us to distribute tests better when they’re needed.
Third, we need to redouble our efforts on protecting the most vulnerable among us, including older adults, the immunocompromised and people with disabilities. This includes encouraging everyone to get their first booster as soon as it’s time to do so. The highest-risk individuals should also get a second booster shot four months after their first.
We also need to enable greater use of Evusheld, a long-acting preventive therapy that provides a high degree of protection against infection for those who don’t respond effectively to vaccines. There are millions of Americans for whom vaccines don’t generate an adequate immune response, and making sure they get the best protection possible is a critical priority.
Treatments need to be more widely available – and publicized. We now have plenty of Paxlovid – a highly effective oral antiviral pill – available in thousands of locations across the nation. It’s no longer in short supply, so we must keep expanding access, and getting the word out that Paxlovid is free and available.
Easier access to effective treatments is critical to preventing severe illness, keeping our hospitals functional and saving lives.
At the same time, we need to keep helping more Americans get vaccinated, which remains the best intervention we have for protecting people. Continuing to purchase vaccines (including potentially variant-specific ones) and making them available, accessible and free to the American people remains a critical public health strategy.
Fourth, we need to keep making high-quality masks widely available. The Biden administration has already sent more than 270 million N95 masks to local pharmacies, grocery stores and health centers for people to pick up for free; we must continue stockpiling masks and keep domestic manufacturers in business so we’re ready when they are needed.
Finally, to get this pandemic behind us, we have to ensure the world is vaccinated. Every major variant that has hit us hard was first identified outside the United States. There is no domestic-only strategy for a pandemic – certainly not one that could possibly work.
The Biden administration has already delivered more than 500 million doses to 114 countries, and we can and should do more to help support the distribution and administration of these vaccines. It’s not only the right thing to do but also in our own best interest, both in terms of health and global leadership.
All of these ideas, laid out in President Joe Biden’s plan, are now possible due to the miracles of the scientific community, the ingenuity of our private sector and the hard work of our government agencies, civil society and community organizations.
We can do this. But we need funding to make it happen.
Scientists are developing a new generation of vaccines that could provide broader and longer-lasting protection. These will likely be ready this fall, but we cannot guarantee they will be available unless Congress steps up and provides the resources. More and even better treatments are on the horizon, but we need funding to secure them.
And if we don’t purchase these vaccines and therapies for the American people, other countries will, and we could find ourselves at the back of the line.
Two years ago, it felt like we were at the mercy of this virus that we didn’t understand and couldn’t counter. That is no longer the case. We now have the know-how and the means to reduce its spread and prevent its most serious consequences. We can save lives, protect people, keep schools open and keep returning to a more normal set of routines. That is what is now possible – if the administration and Congress work together in support of these goals. It is the partnership the American people demand and deserve. It is up to us to deliver.