Today, the White House COVID-19 Team is announcing its strategy to manage BA.5. The strategy relies on ensuring that Americans continue to have easy and convenient access to the vaccines, treatments, tests, and other tools that protect against and treat COVID-19. These tools – even in the face of BA.5 – work to prevent serious illness, keep people out of the hospital, and save lives – and we can prevent nearly all COVID-19 deaths with them.
BA.4 and BA.5 – subvariants of the Omicron variant – now make up 80 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with BA.5 accounting for a majority of cases. Early indications signal that BA.5 may have some increased ability to escape immunity, including from prior infections, meaning it has the potential to cause the numbers of infections to rise in the coming weeks. This potential for increase is greatest where fewer people are up to date on their vaccinations and there is increased waning of immunity from vaccines.
In January 2021, the American people had limited tools to protect themselves against COVID-19. Today, that is no longer the case. Thanks to the infrastructure that the President’s comprehensive COVID-19 response has built and the tools that the Administration has worked to make widely available over the past 18 months, the U.S. is prepared to combat the challenge of BA.5. More than 222 million Americans are fully vaccinated, over 106 million people have at least their first booster shot, and virtually every American of every age is eligible for vaccination. And, we have more courses of lifesaving treatments available and being used than ever before, as well as widely available at-home tests and high-quality masks.
The President’s comprehensive COVID-19 response has produced tremendous results for the American people: COVID-19 is no longer the disruptive force it once was, and most COVID-19 deaths are now preventable because of the vaccines, treatments, and other tools the Biden Administration has made available to the American people. Daily COVID-19 deaths are down by 90 percent since the President took office. America’s schools are open. More Americans are working in the private sector than before the pandemic started. And, the vast majority of Americans are comfortable visiting with loved ones, eating out, traveling and doing other things that they did before COVID-19.
In March, the President released his National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan – a roadmap to continue our fight against the virus and to continue minimizing its impact on our lives. Since emerging from the Omicron surge this past winter, we have worked to make sure that the tools we have remain widely available and easily accessible to Americans.
To confront BA.5, the Administration will continue mobilizing the full strength and capabilities of the federal government and working with state and local leaders, health care workers, the private sector, and community- and faith-based organizations to ensure that the American people have easy and convenient access to and use vaccines, tests, and treatments.
The Administration’s strategy to manage BA.5 includes:
Making it easy for people to get vaccines and boosters: The Administration will continue working with state and local leaders, doctors and pediatricians, pharmacies, community health centers, long-term care facilities, employers, and community- and faith-based organizations to drive additional uptake of booster shots, particularly among those age 50 and older and other at-risk populations, including long-term care facility staff and residents. Given the rise of BA.5, it is essential that Americans stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations. The science is clear that COVID-19 vaccines remain our single-most important tool to protect people and prevent serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, and staying up to date on booster shots ensures that people have the highest level of protection possible. Based on the latest CDC data, adults who are up to date with their vaccinations are 3.5 times less likely to be hospitalized than unvaccinated adults; among those who are 50 and older, people who have received two booster shots are 42 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to those who are unvaccinated. Vaccines are free and easy to access at 90,000 convenient locations nationwide. And, the guidance is clear that every American age 5 and over should receive a booster five months after their primary series, and individuals age 50 and older or those who are moderately or severely immunocompromised should receive a second booster shot at least four months after their first.
Making it easy to access COVID-19 treatments and boost provider and patient awareness: The Administration will continue working across the federal government, with state and local leaders, health care providers, as well as the public and private sectors, to take additional actions to boost access and awareness of lifesaving treatments, particularly in areas where BA.5 is spreading. Today, the U.S. has three treatments that are effective against BA.5, including Paxlovid, a lifesaving antiviral pill that has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by about 90 percent. Americans who test positive for COVID-19 should consult their health care provider about their eligibility for these treatments, or visit COVID.gov to find a Test to Treat location where they can get tested and treatments all in one place. The Administration has purchased 20 million treatment courses of Paxlovid – more than any other country in the world – and moved quickly to make these treatments widely available and to educate health care providers and patients about their availability and efficacy. Oral antivirals are now available at over 41,000 convenient locations nationwide, and nearly 90 percent of Americans live within 5 miles of a place where they can pick up a prescription. As a result of the Administration’s actions, the number of people benefiting from oral antivirals has dramatically increased over the course of this year, from about 18,000 prescriptions filled each week in January to more than 230,000 last week – a more than 12-fold increase. Each day, about one-third of confirmed and reported cases are receiving free and effective oral antiviral treatments.
Making free COVID-19 testing, including at-home tests, widely available: Testing continues to be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including BA.4 and BA.5. In the face of BA.5, the Administration is encouraging Americans to use at-home tests before attending large, indoor gatherings, traveling, or visiting indoors with immunocompromised individuals. COVID-19 testing is now more widely available and accessible to the American people than ever before, and there are now 17 over-the-counter, at-home, rapid tests authorized for the U.S. market – up from zero when the President took office. To help ensure that Americans have tests on hand if a need arises, the Administration opened COVIDtests.gov for a third round of ordering ahead of the summer, meaning that 16 free tests have been made available to each household since the launch of the program. To ensure equitable access for visually-impaired individuals, the Administration has also made available more accessible at-home tests to households with visually-impaired individuals. To date, the Administration has delivered approximately 530 million at-home tests directly to over 75 million American households for free through COVIDtests.gov. Additionally, private health insurers, Medicare, and all Medicaid programs are required to cover at-home COVID-19 tests for free; health insurance plans now cover eight free tests per month per individual which can be easily accessed at local pharmacies and online. And, there are over 15,000 federally-supported free testing sites across the nation. This free testing program has increased equitable access to testing, and 50 percent of individuals currently served by the pharmacy free testing program are racial and ethnic minorities or live in high social vulnerability communities.
Making free high-quality masks widely available and communicate clear recommendations about when people should consider masking: Experts agree that masking in indoor, public spaces is an important tool to control the spread of COVID-19. The CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels provide individuals with clear recommendations on when to consider masking in indoor, public spaces. As BA.5 drives an increase in cases, the Administration continues to encourage Americans to visit COVID.gov to find the level of COVID-19 in their community and follow CDC’s recommendations on wearing masks in public, indoor settings. Since January 2021, the Biden Administration has taken significant action, including using the Defense Production Act, to ensure that the U.S. has ample supply of high-quality masks for health care workers and that high-quality masks are also widely available to the American public online and in stores. To further increase access, over the past seven months, the Administration has made 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile available to the American people for free at tens of thousands of convenient locations nationwide – the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history. And, the Administration will continue to make masks available for health care and other essential workers through states, building on the over 75 million masks and respirators we have already distributed to states, Tribes, and territories across the country.
Prioritizing protections for immunocompromised individuals: As BA.5 cases rise, the Administration will continue to provide support to individuals who are immunocompromised so that they have the support they need to live their lives safely. The Administration has initiated a communications campaign to ensure that immunocompromised individuals and their close contacts are up to date with COVID-19 vaccination and boosters. The availability of vaccines for kids as young as six months old also ensures that all close contacts of immunocompromised individuals can be protected by COVID-19 vaccines. The Administration also continues to make effective pre-exposure prophylactics such as Evusheld more widely available through enhanced distribution to clinicians’ offices and clinics. And, in the coming weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will launch an easy-to-remember hotline to help individuals access this effective tool to prevent COVID-19.
Encouraging all building owners to improve indoor ventilation: Improving ventilation can help prevent the spread of BA.4 and BA.5 indoors in buildings. The Administration has provided state and local leaders hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds that can be used in schools, public buildings, and other settings to improve indoor air quality, and the Administration will continue to advance indoor air quality in buildings, including by increasing public awareness around ventilation and filtration improvements to reduce disease spread, as well as by recognizing buildings and organizations that have taken steps to improve indoor air quality. These efforts will expand on the Administration’s “best practices” guide for improving indoor air quality and reducing the risk of spreading dangerous airborne particles and the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which calls on all building owners and operators, schools, colleges and universities, and organizations of all kinds to adopt key strategies to improve indoor air quality in their buildings and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, CDC has released interactive tools to help individuals at home, in schools, and in other buildings to understand how air flows in their space and what they can do to help shore up air quality and improve ventilation indoors.
Empowering people with the latest information on COVID-19 and where to access vaccines, treatments, tests, and masks at COVID.Gov: The Administration will continue to communicate clearly with the American people about COVID-19 and the steps that they can take to protect themselves and their loved ones. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration launched COVID.gov, a new one-stop shop website to help Americans find where to access lifesaving tools like vaccines, tests, treatments, and masks. People can also type in their county to find the latest updates on the level of COVID-19 in their community and related guidance. And, with a click of a button, people can access resources related to testing, ventilation, and other important COVID-19 topics. COVID.gov is available in English, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese and is accessible for those using assistive technologies. The Administration is also making all of these COVID-19 tools available over the phone through the National Hotline at 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489), which supports over 150 languages. For individuals with disabilities who may need additional support, the Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL) is also available to help at 1-888-677-1199 or via email at DIAL@usaginganddisability.org.