10:40 A.M. EST

MR. ZIENTS:  Good morning.  And thanks for joining us today as we release President Biden’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan.

Today, I’m joined by Secretary Becerra, Dr. Walensky, and Dr. Fauci.  We’ll each deliver some remarks, and then open it up for questions.

As President Biden said in last night’s State of the Union address, we’ve reached a new moment in the fight against COVID-19.

Because of the significant progress we’ve made as a country, the determination and resilience of the American people, and the work we’ve done to make tools to protect ourselves widely available, we are moving forward safely, getting back to our more normal routines.  And under the latest CDC recommendations, most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free.

Last night, the President laid out four key goals for the path ahead:

First, protect against and treat COVID.  

Second, prepare for any new variants.  

Third, prevent economic and school shutdowns.  

Fourth, vaccinate the world and save lives.

The President’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan that we’re releasing today will help move us forward safely, sustaining and building on the progress we’ve made over the past 13 months.

The President’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan is robust and comprehensive.

The President’s plan is the product of many weeks of work with experts inside and outside of government — local public health leaders, governors, and partners across our federal agencies. 

We thank them for sharing their ideas and expertise.  This plan benefits greatly from their valuable input.

Importantly, executing the President’s plan requires additional congressional support and funding.

Today, we’ll provide an overview of this plan.

The first goal: protect against and treat COVID.

Two years ago, we had limited tools to protect ourselves: masks, isolation, and social distancing.  But all of that’s changed.

Today, we have the tools we need to protect each other and treat COVID-19.  They’re widely available for the American people.  And with Congress’s help, the President’s plan will make sure that’s always the case.

We know that vaccines and boosters provide strong protection against severe illness and hospitalization.

Because of the unprecedented vaccination program we’ve established, 216 million Americans are now fully vaccinated.  And two out of three eligible adults now have booster shots, which provide the strongest protection.

In fact, if you’re vaccinated and boosted, you have an extremely high level of protection against COVID, and it’s extremely unlikely you’ll end up in the hospital if you do get the virus. 

The plan lays out how we’re going to keep working with governors, state and local health officials, and community partners to get even more shots in arms.

Importantly, we know parents of children under the age of five are eager to provide their kids the protection of a vaccine.

The President’s plan ensures that as soon as a vaccine is authorized, we’ll be ready with plenty of vaccines and prepared to help parents vaccinate their youngest kids at thousands of trusted and convenient locations across the country.

In addition to vaccines and boosters, we have filled our nation’s medicine cabinet with effective treatments and therapeutics: monoclonal antibodies, antiviral pills, and preventive therapies for our most vulnerable. 

These treatments work to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19.  And we have more treatments available for the American people than ever before — millions of treatments each month.

Pfizer’s pill is a gamechanger — 90 percent effective at keeping people out of the hospital.

We collaborated with Pfizer to accelerate development of the pill.  And we’ve ordered 20 million courses.

As the President announced last night, Pfizer worked overtime to further accelerate delivery.  This month alone — the month of March — we’ll have 1 million of these treatment courses available.  And in April, that number will more than double.

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. 

Hundreds of one-stop sites will open across the country this month, located at local pharmacy clinics, community health centers, long-term care facilities, and veterans’ health centers.

The President’s plan, with support from Congress, ensures other important tools, like tests and high-quality masks are widely available, accessible, and free.

As the President announced last night, if you’ve already gotten your free tests from COVIDTests.gov — COVIDTests.gov — starting next week, you’ll be able to place a second order for tests delivered straight to your home. 

And we continue to make hundreds of millions of high-quality N-95 masks available to Americans for free at local pharmacies, grocery stores, and community health centers across the country. 

Vaccines, treatments, tests, masks — these tools are how we continue to protect people.

They enable us to move forward safely and get back to our more normal routines — going out to eat at a restaurant; taking that trip that’s been long delayed; arranging a playdate for your kids; attending a sports game, a movie, or a concert again.

To make sure people have the tools they need to protect themselves, we’ll launch a website later this month that will be a go-to place where you can find vaccines and masks at easy and convenient locations, and where you can find the latest information on COVID-19 in your community.

Now, let me turn it over to Secretary Becerra to cover how the President’s plan will allow us to keep distributing these tools and ensures we continue to advance equity.

Secretary?

SECRETARY BECERRA:  Thanks, Jeff.  And good morning to everyone. 

Under President Biden’s leadership and in partnership with the White House, we have worked hard at HHS to fight this virus.  We’ve authorized, procured, and distributed our national supply of tests, vaccines, and treatments to every corner of the country.  We’ve conducted groundbreaking and lifesaving research to improve our understanding of the disease and how it impacts us.  And now we move into this next phase to execute President Biden’s National COVID Preparedness Plan.

Our mission remains to protect the health and wellbeing of every American.  Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky will add further specifics, but I want to focus on how we’re going to reach every American who needs our support on COVID.

To ensure we can continue to accelerate and synchronize the research, development, production, and delivery of COVID vaccines and treatments to keep Americans safe, the President’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan makes our logistics and operational hub at HHS permanent.

We call this permanent hub the HHS Coordination Operations and Response Element — or H-CORE.  Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, she and her team at H-CORE build on the successful partnership HHS has had with our dedicated colleagues at DOD, as well as our state and local partners.

Through it, we have delivered more than 690 million doses of vaccines and 4 million treatments to families nationwide.

To date, we have distributed more than 270 million free N95 masks to local pharmacies and community health centers and helped get free COVID tests to 70 million households.

No matter what the future holds, H-CORE must be ready, and Americans deserve to know that we have the infrastructure in place to get critical services and supplies where they are needed.

Another key goal of the President’s plan moving forward is to address the long-term impacts of COVID, including Long COVID and mental health.

As the President said last night, his plan directs the federal government to accelerate its efforts to detect, prevent, and treat Long COVID, building on our ongoing work, already, at NIH. 

We’ll further expand our research and ramp up our data-sharing across the federal government, in collaboration with academic, industry, and state and local partners. 

And, if we get the funding from Congress, we will launch new Centers of Excellence in communities across the country to provide high-quality care to individuals experiencing Long COVID and better understand the symptoms they’re facing. 

This is all part of our commitment to be there for Americans who have long-term physical and mental health needs caused by COVID.  They know that numbers and statistics alone don’t capture the true toll of COVID-19.  It’s lost job and piling bills.  It’s the empty chair at the dinner table or the open seat in the bleachers, the quiet homes, and the crowded hospitals.

That’s why this administration will coordinate a whole-of-government effort to support children and families who have experienced the loss of a loved one due to COVID. 

This includes leveraging every program at our disposal to address fundamental needs, like financial resources to cover funeral costs to trauma- and grief-informed services. 

We will also launch new support for people dealing with mental health-related challenges, including an expanded program to prevent job burnout and support the mental wellbeing of our nation’s healthcare workforce.  We want every frontline, essential healthcare worker to know: We’re with you, and we’ve got your back.

This week, we’ll launch a nationwide tour to strengthen mental and behavioral health services.  We want to engage communities to hear how we can best support Americans who’ve been hit hard.  I head to New Hampshire this Friday to kick things off.

Whether we are working to strengthen mental health, behavioral health; whether we’re authorizing therapeutics or distributing vaccines — at HHS, we bring our unique capabilities and expertise to the mission. 

As it has from the beginning, fairness for everyone — equity — will remain at the center of our work.

We’ve already seen the power of this intentional approach. 

We have closed disparities in vaccination rates for Black, Latino, and Asian American adults.  This historic progress didn’t happen overnight or by accident.  It’s the product of dedicated focus and hard work. 

We’ve surged resources, including tests and treatment, to our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities.  And we’ve safely reopened schools, helping our most vulnerable students have more equitable access to learning and easing the burden on working parents across rural and urban areas.

Tackling barriers to vaccinations, boosters, testing, and treatments remains a priority for us.  This includes making sure people can access these tools for free, wherever you are, and even if you don’t have health insurance. 

And we will continue to address the specific needs of seniors, people living with disabilities, and people who are immunocompromised.  These are the Americans who need our focus and attention right now.  These are our friends and neighbors, nuestros padres y abuelos — our family.

We see you, and we will do everything in our power to protect and support you, including making sure you have access to boosters and treatment.

Bottom line: As we move forward, we will leave no one behind.  President Biden made that clear last night.

With that, let me turn it over to Jeff. 

MR. ZIENTS:  Well, thank you, Secretary.

Now, moving to the second goal of the President’s plan: preparing for any new variants. 

We know this virus is unpredictable, so the President’s plan makes clear we’re continuing to take every action within our power to prepare for any possible new variants.

As Dr. Walensky will discuss in a moment, we’ve taken significant steps to improve monitoring for any new variants.

America’s variant monitoring system can now detect variants at a very, very low level.  If a new variant emerges, we’re able to catch it earlier, faster, and with greater precision.

And when we do detect a new variant, we’ll be ready to respond quickly.

We have a COVID-19 variant playbook to rapidly assess a variant’s transmissibility and severity, and its potential impact on vaccines and treatment.

We’ve put it to the test over the past few weeks with tabletop readiness and response exercises against a fictional variant with HHS, CDC, NIH, FDA, FEMA, and other agencies at the table.

If needed, we have developed plans and processes that we can produce, authorize, and deliver new vaccines and treatments in just 100 days rather than in many months or years.  Funding from Congress will be critical to these efforts. 

The President’s plan also creates new stockpiles of at-home tests, antiviral pills, and high-quality masks, including masks for kids.  So, we’re ready for whatever comes.

Next, the third goal of the President’s plan: prevent economic and school shutdowns.

We know how to keep our businesses and our schools open with the tools that we have at our disposal.  And we’ve shown we can do it, even during the Omicron surge.

Under the President’s plan, we’ll continue to ensure that our schools, workers, and workplaces have the resources they need.

This includes the Environmental Protection Agency — the EPA — issuing a new clean air in buildings checklist, a set of recommendations to improve indoor air quality through effective ventilation practices. 

As we move forward, the President believes Americans should be able to stay home if they do get COVID so they can protect others and take care of themselves and their loved ones without the added burden of missing a paycheck. 

That’s why the President’s plan calls on Congress to reinstate tax credits to help small- and mid-size businesses provide paid sick and family leave to those sick with COVID-19. 

Last, the fourth goal of the President’s plan: vaccinating the world and saving lives.

Clearly, the virus does not recognize national borders.  To protect the American people and our economy, we must defeat the virus everywhere.  That means vaccinating Americans and vaccinating people around the world.  It’s both the right thing to do and it is in our own national interest.

Under President Biden, the United States has led the global vaccination effort.  We’re donating 1.2 billion doses to the world.  In fact, we’ve already shipped 480 million doses in total to 112 countries for free — no strings attached.  That’s four times as many doses shipped as any other country.

The President’s plan includes continuing to donate more vaccines and doubling down on efforts to turn those vaccines into vaccinations.

We’re going to help get shots in arms around the world by supporting public education efforts, providing vaccinators in the field, and setting up vaccination sites. 

Now, let me turn to Dr. Walensky to provide more detail on CDC’s work to improve and expand tracking and monitoring of COVID variants.

And then over to Dr. Fauci to discuss NIH’s work to support the development of new treatments and next-generation vaccines.

Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY:  Good morning, everyone.  Thank you, Jeff.  I’m delighted to be with you for today’s announcement.

As you heard from Jeff and Secretary Becerra, a key element of the President’s National COVID Preparedness Plan is building on the strengths of our public health response to COVID-19, expanding our capacity to respond to new variants, clusters of cases, or outbreaks so we can effectively stay ahead of this virus and protect more people.

Today, I want to discuss some of CDC’s strategies for monitoring the virus, alerting people in real-time, and adjusting our response as needed. 

These approaches include our National Wastewater Surveillance System and the National Syndromic Surveillance Program to better anticipate a rise in cases; expanded genomic sequencing to quickly identify new variants; and our approach to data modernization and our new Center for Forecasting and Analytics, which is designed to forecast and model emerging health threats and to help inform public health decision making.

First, surveillance.  Last month, CDC publicly released our National Wastewater Surveillance data.  For SARS-CoV-2, 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 in 212 communities, representing over 50 million people.  

With continued expansion, we now have 647 testing sites publicly reporting on COVID Data Tracker, and we are onboarding new sites each week.  This adds to the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which collects data on COVID-19 emergency visits from over 70 percent of emergency departments across the country to anticipate where cases are increasing.

Second, we are expanding our capacity in genomic surveillance so that we can readily detect variants of concern or interest.

Each week, CDC analyzes genomic sequences from all 50 states and uses these sequences to understand and map the spread of variants across the country, often sequencing tens of thousands of viral samples in a given week.  These robust sequencing efforts mean we can reliably identify very low levels of variants, even variants that account for as little as 0.1 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Finally, we continue to invest in and scale up our data modernization efforts, which improve COVID-19 data collection, reporting, analysis, and interoperability so America is better informed and ready to respond to whatever may come next.  By connecting data from local public health to our national systems, we work to collect the data today that we will need to answer the critical questions of tomorrow.

These data can then be used by CDC’s Forecast — Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to forecast and model our public health threats and inform our prevention recommendations.  CDC is working with state, county, and city jurisdictions to transform independent, local surveillance efforts into a robust, sustainable national system.

And, we continue to build and strengthen our global collaborations and communication networks to better understand and respond to COVID-19 variants as they emerge.  All of these efforts are with a vision for not just COVID, but also to address any future infectious and non-infectious public health threats.

As we continue to move forward from this pandemic, I’m confident that CDC and our public health partners are well positioned to use our surveillance and our data to lead the way.

Thank you.  I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI:  Thanks, Dr. Walensky.

As Jeff said, vaccines and treatments are key parts of our toolkit moving forward. 

In this regard, it is important to point out the unprecedented global research effort that brought us to where we are today in our capability to intervene against COVID.  Decades of U.S. investment in fundamental biomedical research provided the foundation for the rapid design and development of COVID-19 vaccines. 

This work includes but is not limited to groundbreaking, structure-based vaccine design by U.S. government scientists at the NIAID Vaccine Research Center. 

As soon as the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was made available in January of 2020, these researchers rapidly generated a stabilized spike protein as the optimal immunogen for use in vaccine development.

This crucial breakthrough led to the development, in association with industry partners, of multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates, several of which are now authorized or approved by the FDA.

These vaccines have now been administered to billions of people around the world, including over 250 million in the United States.  They are safe and they work.

Moving forward, we will continue to prioritize this vital research, including towards a pan-coronavirus vaccine.

Now, if new variants emerge, we now have faster processes to assess the impact of the virus on our vaccines.  And this plan ensures that we are ready to deploy personnel and resources to quickly update the vaccines.

These expedited plans and processes will help us reach our goal that updated vaccines can be developed, approved, and manufactured in approximately 100 days.

While we would always rather prevent a case of COVID-19 than treat one, we do have a growing number of therapeutic options, including monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs.

This, too, is a victory for science.  NIH-supported basic research and clinical trials infrastructure within the United States and around the world helped the scientific community, in collaboration with our industrial partners, to undertake rigorously designed studies to give us robust data, not just speculation or anecdotes, about safety and efficacy of various treatment options.

As we face the threat of the Omicron variant, we are fortunate to have several powerful medications that work to keep people out of the hospital.  The most recent of these is the Eli Lilly monoclonal antibody co-discovered by NIAID scientists and their collaborators in industry, which is already going out across the country.  This powerful medicine works against all the variants that we’ve tested it against.

And Pfizer’s antivirals are highly effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization and death.  One million courses are available just this month.

Also, the plan announced today calls for continued investment in treatment research for COVID-19.

NIH also established the COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel to provide up-to-date recommendations to healthcare providers throughout the world regarding specific COVID-19 treatments based on the best available science.  The panel meets regularly to evaluate possible treatment options for COVID-19, and they update the guidelines as new clinical evidence emerges.

However, our work is certainly not done.

The scientific community continues to conduct vital research to learn more about SARS-CoV-2 and the body’s immune response both during and following infection so that we can adapt and improve vaccines and treatments.  In addition, as Secretary Becerra mentioned, we are working to understand better, prevent, and intervene in Long COVID.

We know that we will have to contend with COVID at some level for some time to come.  Thus, we will continue to invest in research to develop better treatments and next-generation vaccines, ones that could provide even broader and longer-lasting protection.  

This ongoing research investment is not only helping us turn the corner on COVID-19 but also is vital to preparing us for future pandemics. 

With that, I will turn it back over to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS:  Well, thank you, Doctors.

Let me close with this: By protecting against and treating COVID, preparing for any new variants, preventing economic and school shutdowns, and vaccinating the world and saving lives, the President’s COVID-19 Preparedness Plan will enable us to move forward safely, to get back to our more normal routines.

The President’s Plan is robust and comprehensive.  And I want to emphasize that execution of the President’s Plan requires additional funding.

HHS has laid out some immediate funding needs for Congress.  We’ll need additional funding for medium- and longer-term priorities, and we’ll be working with Congress in the weeks ahead.

President Biden came into office facing the worst public health crisis in more than a century.

Over the past 13 months, we’ve leveraged the full force of the federal government to fight COVID.  And together, with the leadership of governors and local health officials, the innovation of the private sector, and the determination of the American people, we have made tremendous progress.

We’ve delivered the tools Americans need to protect themselves, reopened our schools, and gotten our economy moving again.

The President’s Plan will build on that progress.  And with congressional support, we look forward to executing this plan in the year ahead.

With that, Kevin, let’s open it up for questions.

Kevin?

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Jeff.  We have a good amount of questions today and some limited time, so let’s keep it to one question.

First, let’s go to Jeremy Diamond at CNN.

Q    Hey, thanks, all, for doing this.  I’m curious — a couple things.  First of all, when will it be the appropriate time to remove the domestic travel mask mandate, given the lowered risk of COVID and your new plan?

And secondly, you know, when you say and when the President said last night that you want to start treating this disease like others and having it be less disruptive to people’s daily lives, do you foresee a time where people no longer need to isolate when they test positive for COVID, particularly if they don’t have symptoms?  Thanks.

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay, why don’t I take the first question, which was on domestic air travel.  And then Dr. Walensky.

Last week’s guidance from CDC on masking did not change air and rail travel requirements, including the requirements to wear a mask on public transportation.  Those requirements are currently in place through March 18th, and they’ll continue to be so while we evaluate — leading up to March 18th — the duration of the requirement based on the state of the virus.

So, no change, but an evaluation taking place at this point.

Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, thank you for that question, Jeremy.

We always prefer to have people who might be infectious with an infectious disease home and not transmitting to others, certainly during your most infectious period of time — that first two or three before your symptoms and the two or three days after your symptoms is the time that you’re most infectious.

Certainly, we may consider to revisit that at some future time.  But right now, with about 68,000 cases around the country daily, we’re not looking at revisiting that right now.

Next question.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC.

Q    Thank you.  I want to ask about one-way masking, since that seems to be the advice for anyone who isn’t ready to take their mask off yet and particularly kids under five or immunocompromised people.

So, specifically, what do you need to wear to ensure that you’re protected if you’re one-way masking?  I know we’ve spoken about N95s, but if they’re not available to kids and aren’t very comfortable, can we lean on surgical masks or KN95s as good enough?

And my second question is: How much funding does this plan require in total?

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay.  Dr. Walensky, on masking?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, certainly.  So, certainly, the best possible mask is one that you can keep on for a durable period of time.  We have commented on our CDC website, and we have guidance for this, that you certainly want two-layered masks, something that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, generally with a wire bridge.

Of course, if you can tolerate a better-fitting mask, a higher-quality mask for a longer period of time, those are always preferred.  So those would be your N95s and your KN95s, and then, as well, your surgical masks.

So, all of those data are complete on our CDC website.  But really, we want to make sure that people can tolerate them for long periods of time and, if you can, that you increase the quality of the mask you wear.

MR. ZIENTS:  I think your second question was on funding.  I’ll handle that.

HHS and the State Department, along with USAID, have identified and briefed bipartisan leaders in Congress on the near-term funding that is needed.  This includes resources to secure more medical supplies, including vaccines, treatments, and boosters; sustaining the testing capacity in the country; investing, as Dr. Fauci talked, about in research and development of next-generation vaccines, including pan-coronavirus vaccines; and accelerating vaccine uptake globally.

There’s clearly broad support from the American people for securing these critical medical supplies so we’re protected and we’re prepared for any possible variant.

We will need additional funding beyond these immediate needs to effectively execute on the medium- and longer-term priorities and policies in today’s plan.

As we finalize these numbers, we will communicate that with Congress and look forward to working closely with Congress going forward.

Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Tamara Keith at NPR.  

Q    Thank you for taking my question.  Related to the masks, leads to another question — what about Title 42 that is in effect as a public health emergency?  Dr. Walensky, are you reconsidering the status of Title 42, along with some of the other guidance?

Additionally, I noticed that Secretary Becerra is here at this briefing as you all move from a crisis footing to more of a long-term management mode.  Are you shifting primary management of COVID to HHS from the White House?

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, great.  Thank you, Tamara.  So, we continue to reevaluate Title 42 every several weeks, every four to eight weeks, and we will continue to do so throughout the duration of time of this pandemic.

MR. ZIENTS:  On Secretary Becerra, I’ll go first.  And if you want to —

SECRETARY BECERRA:  Sure.

MR. ZIENTS:  — add anything.  As I’ve said before, Secretary Becerra has been an essential partner throughout the COVID response, and that work continues going forward.

The Secretary is leading many of the critical COVID efforts at HHS, like managing the operational and logistical structure to deliver hundreds of millions of vaccines, tests, and treatments across the country; focusing on the long-term impacts of COVID, as he discussed today, like Long COVID, mental health challenges, and the tragedy of losing someone they love.

So this is very much business as usual.  We have a very close working relationship and partnership, talking and meeting many times, most weeks.  Secretary Becerra?

SECRETARY BECERRA:  I’ll only add that, from the beginning, the President put together a team, and that’s the way it’s continued to work.  HHS is a principal partner in that team. 

H-CORE, the new organization that I mentioned, is going to be indispensable for the execution of this plan.  And H-CORE has learned from the lessons that we saw from Operation Warp Speed, when DOD had more jurisdiction and was more in charge.  

But now that it is permanently housed here at HHS, you’ll continue to see much of the execution, once the plans are in place and the President gives a signal, emanating from HHS, as you can see from the presentations today.  

So, it’s all the team effort, and it’s about getting the job done.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Emma Court at Bloomberg.

Q    Hi, thanks for holding this.  I was hoping you could speak about how confident the government is about its COVID monitoring systems moving forward, especially given that so many of the precautions are now being relaxed.  Will we have enough notice if another surge develops?

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, so that is instrumental in what we’ve been doing.  We have great collaborations globally so that if a variant were to — of concern were to emerge globally, we are in touch globally. 

And then we have all of the systems that we talked about — our wastewater system; our syndromic surveillance system; our genomic surveillance system; our enhanced genomic surveillance system, which is how we found a case of Omicron within days of knowing that it existed in other countries.

So, yes, we are confident.  We continue to scale up these efforts and are grateful for the resources from Congress to be able to do so.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Sheryl Stolberg, New York Times.

Q    Thank you for doing this call.  A couple of questions.  First, to Dr. Walensky, we’re still at about 60,000 cases a day, which is more than five times the low of June 2021.  So I’m wondering: Is there a threshold of daily cases at which you would feel comfortable recommending that the travel mask mandate be lifted?

And then, for Dr. Fauci, I’m interested in the likelihood of a universal coronavirus vaccine.  A flu — universal flu vaccine has been a dream for a long time and it hasn’t happened, so how soon would you envision a universal coronavirus vaccine?

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky, first.

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, I want to just comment, Sheryl, that the qualitative — how these cases are in February or March of 2022 is just very different than where we were in June of 2021.  

And that is because of all the tools that we have now.  It’s because Omicron in general is a milder variant.  But it’s also because of the massive amount of vaccination we’ve been doing, the massive amount of boosting we’ve been doing, as well as the protection that we can get from our therapeutics in this moment.  So I think that it’s not necessary that we compare it exactly the same number of cases.  

That said, I will also say that we will be revisiting the the March — in the middle of March, the testing — the travel — the masking for travel order, and more to come on that.

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Fauci?

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, Sheryl, well, when one thinks of a pan-coronavirus vaccine, it really is going to be an incremental process.  So if you look at the entire phylogenetic tree of coronavirus — there are many, many coronaviruses, some of which are even the common cold coronaviruses that we’ve all experienced prior to COVID-19, generally year after year accounting for anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of the common colds.

Then there’s the beta-coronaviruses, which include not only SARS-CoV-2 but SARS-CoV-1, MERS, and others, and they are in another category of the beta-coronaviruses.

So when you ask about pan-coronavirus, that’s quite aspirational.  And if we ever get there, that will take years.  But what we’re focusing on first is a pan-SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, which means a vaccine that would be highly effective against ancestral strain — Alpha, Beta, Delta, Omicron — or any future SARS-CoV-2 that we might experience.  I believe that is much, much closer than the pan-coronavirus vaccine.  

The reason I can’t give you a timeframe is that when you’re in the element of discovery, as opposed to full development, you do not know when you will get the right situation, be it an immunogen or a platform or what have you.  We are working intensively on that discovery phase.  

Once you get a particular candidate that fulfills certain criteria, then, if you asked me that question again, Sheryl, I could give you an approximation of how long it would take.  

But right now, we’re making good progress.  We have several candidates that look good — some are in preclinical, some are in phase one.

So we will keep you posted.  And I hope that you keep coming back and asking that question, because as we get more and more discovery, we’ll have a better approximation of when we will get to that goal.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Zeke Miller at the AP.

Q    Thanks for doing this.  First, simply to follow up on Jeremy’s question regarding air travel, what’s the science that says that people should wear masks on planes and on trains but don’t need to wear one at a, you know, crowded movie theater or arena?

Separately, does the CDC believe that schools in places that are in — have low spread should recommend that students not wear masks, given the potential unintended consequences that mask-wearing has had on children’s education?

And then more broadly, the President’s message last night was that people should be, you know, going back to work, we should would fill downtowns again.  How does the administration plan to, sort, of get people to overcome three years of shutdown anxiety and work-from-home tendencies to actually go back and resume their normal activities?

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay, Zeke, you had a couple masking questions there.

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah.

MR. ZIENTS:  One was airplanes.  Second was —

DR. WALENSKY:  Schools.

MR. ZIENTS:  — schools with low transmission.  And then you had the federal workforce.  So why don’t we turn it to Dr. Walensky on the masking questions and then I’ll handle the federal workforce.

DR. WALENSKY:  Great.  So, just in terms of travel, we have to look not only at the science with regard to transmission in masks but also the epidemiology and the frequency that we may encounter a variant of concern or a variant of interest in our travel corridors.  

So, all of those go into our equations, in terms of how much diseases out there, as well as the science, and as well as the control people have when they enter those travel quarters.  We — people rely on those quarters for getting to work and for, you know, other reasons.  So, that’s among the reasons that we want to revisit this in a separate way. 

In terms of schools: As we released last Friday, we are confident in our guidance from last Friday that schools can now follow the COVID-19 community levels in terms of their masking recommendations. 

Those recommendations, if you recall, is to maintain masking if you are in an area that is orange or high-level community COVID-19 level, and that you could remove those masks if you are yellow or green — where, in yellow, if you are high — are at high risk, that you would want to consult your healthcare provider to give you some advice as to whether you would want to continue.

MR. ZIENTS:  On the federal workforce and the workforce more generally: Throughout the pandemic, more than 4 million federal employees had been very hard at work protecting our country and providing critical services.  

Over the past year, we’ve made significant progress in the COVID response.  And thanks to their efforts, people working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.  We’re doing that here in the federal government.  

Across the coming weeks, the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.  You’ll see public-facing federal government offices open for longer hours, more in-person appointments and walkups services.  

You know, more generally, on worker safety: OSHA, at the Department of Labor, will update workplace guidance to better equip employees with the tools they need to ensure safer workplaces, including information, as we talked about earlier, on ventilation.

We will work with Congress to provide paid sick leave to workers who need to miss work due to a case of COVID-19 or to care for a loved one who has COVID-19.  We want to reinstate the tax credits to help small and midsize businesses provide paid sick and family leave. 

Next question. 

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Alex Nazaryan at Yahoo!

Q    Yes.  Hi, thank you.  Can you speak broadly to what else can be done to move us past the emergency stage of the pandemic?  That’s clearly the message that we heard from the President last night. And how do we articulate that — how do you articulate that message in the weeks and months to come, you know, assuming that we don’t have some new variant?

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Fauci, do you want to start there?

DR. FAUCI:  Well, you know, when you say “emergency” — “emergency” means different things to different people.  We are still in a situation right now where, as you know, we have about 68,000 cases.  We are coming down in the right direction.  

We hope — and I believe we will get there — all the parameters that we have, pointing to this as well as the interventions that we have — that we will reach a stage where — further and further down to the point where some people call it “living with the virus,” some people call it “endemic.”  If that is not an emergency, then, in fact, we’re out of the emergency situation. 

But remember, whenever you talk about this, the thing you always must keep saying: We always must be prepared for the eventuality of another variant.

So we can go living our lives the way we’ve just described, the way Jeff and what Dr. Walensky and what the President described last night.  We are in that situation where we can do that. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the definition of an emergency, where there are other things that are important that one can do in much greater ease when you’re in a situation where you’re officially in an emergency. 

But right now, if you look at the practicality of where we are, we are clearly going in the right direction.  And with all the interventions we have, I believe that we are prepared for the possibility that we will get another variant with regard to vaccines, boosters, testing, good masks, and antivirals.

MR. ZIENTS:  Yeah.  I would just add on to what Dr. Fauci said that, you know, over the past year, we’ve made significant progress and are in a very different position than we were when President Biden took office, with 215 million people fully vaccinated; two out of three eligible adults boosted; multiple treatment options, which we’ve talked about today, including millions of lifesaving pills; free at-home testing; 400 million high-quality masks going out for free.  And because of this progress and the widely available nature of these tools, we’ve reached a new moment in the fight with COVID-19.

Today, we are in a position to move forward safely and to get back to our more normal routines.  Today’s plan has been in the making for a long time.  We started in early January.  It was developed with the input from dozens of experts, local public health leaders, governors and partners across our federal agencies.  And with additional support from Congress, we’ll ensure we protect more people with COVID — from COVID going forward, that we’re prepared for new variants, and we prevent shutdowns.

At the same time, I think it’s important to note that there is more work ahead of us.  You know, we’ll roll out vaccines for kids ages two to five.  It’s authorized by FDA and recommended by CDC.  We’ll launch the “Test to Treat” initiative so people can get tested and treated for free in one stop.  And we’ll create new stockpiles of tests, pills, and masks so we have the tools ready to deploy if we need them. 

So the President was very clear, as Dr. Fauci said, that we need to be prepared for any possible variant and invest in the next level — the next generation of treatments and vaccines.

Funding from Congress will be critical for these efforts so we’ll be working very closely with Capitol Hill going forward.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question.

MODERATOR:  Last question.  Let’s go to Pedro Rojas at Univision.

Q    Thank you.  Just wanted to give — make a question to Secretary Becerra.  (Speaks Spanish.)

SECRETARY BECERRA:  (Speaks Spanish.)

MR. ZIENTS:  I want to thank everybody for today’s briefing.  And it’s wonderful to be getting back to our more normal routine and to be doing these briefings with my colleagues in person. 

So, thank you, everybody.

11:30 A.M. EST

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