Joe Biden

Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the Biden Administration's Winter Preparedness Plan for COVID-19

December 14, 2022

Via Teleconference

5:07 P.M. EST

MR. MUNOZ: Hello, everybody. Happy Wednesday. Thank you for joining us for a press call to discuss the Biden administration's winter preparedness plan for COVID-19. 

As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to "senior administration officials." It's embargoed until the morning at 5:00 a.m. 

You should have just received a factsheet right before this call -- right before I started talking. 

But without further ado, I have [senior administration official] on the call to walk through the plan, and then we'll take some of your questions. 

So, [senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, Kevin. Good evening, everyone. Thanks for being here. 

As Kevin said, you should have the factsheet in your inboxes, so I'm going to keep this as brief as possible. 

As expected, we're seeing COVID cases rising in parts of the country following Thanksgiving. And while COVID isn't the disruptive force it once was, we know that the virus will circulate more quickly and easily as folks gather indoors for the winter holiday season.

Throughout the Biden administration's COVID response, our first principle has been to be prepared for whatever the virus throws our way, and we have delivered. This moment is no different.

To that end, today we're announcing our Winter COVID-19 Preparedness Plan to ensure that we stay ahead of increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this winter.

Our plan is focused on a few different things. 

First, making it even easier for Americans to access the tools we know work to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, or worse -- like vaccines, tests, and treatments.

Second, we're standing ready to support states and communities with personnel, supplies, and other resources to get more shots in arms and meet urgent clinical needs as they arise.

Third, accelerating our efforts to protect the highest-risk Americans, in partnership with states, at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, starting with updated vaccinations.

Now let me get more specific on a few key aspects of the plan.

First, starting tomorrow, each household can visit and order a total of four at-home tests to be mailed directly to their doorsteps for free. That's four free tests per household, regardless of how many tests they've ordered previously, with tests starting to ship next week -- the week of the 19th.

This adds another way Americans can access free tests this winter, including through their health insurance plan, which covers free -- eight free tests per month per individual, as well as thousands of community-based locations around the U.S., like community health centers, schools, and long-term care facilities.

We're able to reopen for a limited round because, in the absence of congressional funding, we've acted within our limited resources to buy more at-home tests for our national stockpile. 

Second, we're making it clear to governors and local leaders that we're in this together, and we're asking them to get ready and step up too, now, to get more people vaccinated, including through mobile and pop-up vaccination clinics and to expend -- to expand access to testing and treatments, including through more test-to-treat sites, in advance of the winter.

We stand ready to support them in any way that we can, including making federal personnel available to be deployed as requested by states to address pressing needs, and pre-positioning personal protective equipment and other critical supplies, such as ventilators, to ship out to states if needed.

Third, we're putting our comprehensive surveillance capabilities to work in order to closely monitor Omicron subvariants that emerge here at home and around the world. From genomic sequencing to detect the evolution of the virus, to waste water surveillance and traveler-based genomic surveillance to monitor trends, we will stay on top of this virus and communicate clearly about what we're seeing and what we know.

Last and certainly not least, we're focusing on highest-risk individuals, including those elderly living in nursing homes. 

We have the tools we need to prevent death and severe illness, and we want all nursing homes to take action now. To that end, we are releasing a winter playbook for nursing homes and long-term care facilities. This is a shorthand document focused on updated vaccinations, treatment for residents testing positive, and improving indoor air quality.

We're also expanding the pool of staff members at nursing homes who can administer shots, and we're reaching out to governors where nursing home vaccination rates are low so that we can offer our support.

Let me just close with this. We know what to do in this moment. We have the tools, infrastructure, and know-how we need to effectively manage this time to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, minimize disruptions, and respond to challenges. Everyone just has to do their part.

For individuals, that means getting your updated COVID-19 vaccine right away and making use of other tools, like tests, and seeking out treatment as soon as you test positive.

Making sure -- I'm sorry. We're doing our part by making it even easier for people who can do these things -- easier for people to do these things by helping states and communities in any way we can. And we stand ready for whatever comes this winter.

With that, I'll take questions. Kevin?

MR. MUNOZ: Thank you, [senior administration official]. First, let's go to Sarah Owermohle at STAT News.

Q: Hi. Thank you for taking my questions. So I just wanted to ask, first, just why this can't be on the record rather than on background. I think that that transparency would help people. 

But then also, I'm wondering, since the administration has been saying for a while now that you don't have funds for the continued COVID-19 response, just where the funds came for these new tests.

MR. MUNOZ: So, quickly, Sarah, on the first issue: Across every issue area at the White House, we hold embargoed calls on background ahead of any major announcement.

[Senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much for the question. You know, this entire time as we have been fighting COVID, we've been talking about making hard choices given limited funding. 

And when we -- sorry -- and, you know, there remains an urgent need for additional COVID funding to help us stay prepared in the face of an unpredictable virus. So, at the end of the day, you know, we had to repurpose some of our existing money to focus on this important initiative as we are seeing cases go up. These are always hard choices, and we have to make trade-offs.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Fenit at The Post. 

Q: Hi. I will just second what Sarah about why this can't be on the record. I understand that you hold these briefings ahead of announcements. I don't see why that Americans can't read the name of the government official explaining these -- these actions and why they have to read unnamed government officials. 

That aside, my question is about masks. How do masks factor into your winter prepared -- preparedness plan, especially since we're not just dealing with COVID but flu and RSV, too?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, thank you for that question. As you'll see in our plan, we do reference masks. The administration has given out hundreds of millions of masks for free, and they are widely available. 

They were originally distributed to pharmacies, and we are now ensuring that they are also being distributed to places where people who might have greater challenges accessing free masks can get them, including food banks, community health centers, and other locations. 

And I think we view masks to be just one important tool in an arsenal of tools that is part of a multi-pronged strategy to combat COVID.

MR. MUNOZ: Thank you. Let's go to Shannon Pettypiece at NBC.

Q: Could you just bring us up to date on what the supply of Paxlovid is like? Like, what's the latest numbers on how many doses you still have out there? You know, is that readily available? Are you really re- -- pre-positioning any doses? Just sort of what's the state of play with Paxlovid?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Good question. So we have distributed out from our government stockpile roughly 6 million doses out to jurisdictions. I am confident in saying that we will have sufficient Paxlovid supply for domestic use for the foreseeable future. We feel very good about our resources with regard to Paxlovid.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Madison Muller at Bloomberg.

Q: Thank you for taking my question. I was wondering if there are any efforts right now to address some of the losses with monoclonal antibodies, given that people with, you know, immunocompromising conditions are most at risk of severe COVID, and the variants have knocked out some of those. Are there any ongoing efforts to find new monoclonal antibodies or help development of those? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Another excellent question. Yes, so this is obviously something that is very front of mind for us. You know, especially with regard to the immunocompromised who cannot take oral antivirals like Paxlovid, we are always looking to expand our arsenal and are looking at drugs in the pipeline.

I think that, you know, this is something that we think about all the time in terms of ensuring that we have a wide array of tools for people across the population, including the immunocompromised.

That said, I will just say, you know, our go-to is oral antivirals, including Paxlovid, which we believe most of the population can take safe- -- you know, safely. And it's a highly safe and effective product, extremely effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization and death. 

So, you know, that is really consistent with NIH clinical guidelines, consistent with the statements coming out of FDA and CDC. You know, we are very much leaning into the message that people should be considering Paxlovid as a first choice when they test positive.

MR. MUNOZ: Thanks. We'll take a couple more. Let's go to Zeke Miller at the Associated Press.

Q: Thanks for this. What are the administration's current projections for the COVID component of this winter surge? How many cases are expected? How many deaths, serious illnesses are forecasted in the coming months?

And, you know, you mentioned that this is all -- you know, that you've freed up this money to buy more vaccine -- to buy more at-home tests; you have supplies of masks already on store shelves, you have vaccines. It seems that the administration's problem here is that there's a demand problem; nobody -- or, majority of Americans are not taking you up on them. Where is the strategy to change that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Great question. So, just going to the first part of your question first, you know, we've been talking for months about being prepared for a winter surge. You know, before Thanksgiving, we talked about the six-week push for vaccinations. And we are constantly looking for ways to be ready. 

You know, we're a few years into -- we're a few years into the pandemic. And, you know, we are prepared for this moment. We have the tools. We've learned from the past. And, you know, we saw an uptick in cases after Thanksgiving, and we believe that was expected when people gather indoors. You know, we expect those sorts of things.

We're closely monitoring cases post that. And we are standing ready and prepared with the tools that we have assembled to face this this winter.

MR. MUNOZ: Thanks. Let's go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News.

Q: Hi, thank you. Can you just clarify a little further where specifically the money was taken from to put towards these tests, and if you're buying more new tests or if you're just opening back up the supply that you had from the last go-around, and how many tests are left? 

And I'm also wondering where things stand with the public health emergency and when you see that winding down.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, in terms of where the funds came from, they're ARP funds. And we've had to think very hard about how exactly to make these trade-offs in terms of how we use these funds. So it's from ARP.

Procurements are ongoing, and so I can't give you exact numbers on how this is going to land. But we feel confident that we are going to have enough tests to get through this next round, four per household, in the coming weeks.

And on -- oh, and on PHE, the basic thing that I will say there is this is a decision by the HHS Secretary. The PHE remains in place. And everyone is committed to give 60 days' notice before it comes down. I don't really have more I can say on that.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, we're going to do one more question. Let's go to Courtney Rozen at Bloomberg.

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. One -- oh --

Can you hear me, Kevin?


Q: Okay, great. One population that I didn't hear you mention are communities that are deemed as socially vulnerable by the CDC. I know that the Increasing Access to Testing program was launched at CDC for the purpose of reaching those groups. And I don't see anything on here about you amping that up or increasing your work with state officials to target those particular groups that might be more vulnerable to a surge. Can you describe what you're doing there? 

And then my second question for you is: I've been talking to state health officials, and I know that several states have suspended their own procurement operations for testing, specifically at-home rapid COVID-19 testing that you'd be providing through the USPS option. Do you expect that states will rely more heavily on you during this expected or possible increase in cases, given that they might not be as set up to get their own supplies as they were maybe a year ago?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excellent questions, both. So, starting with your first question, we're very committed to reaching all vulnerable populations. We talked a lot about nursing homes, long-term care facilities. And we view the populations in those areas to be the most vulnerable because we -- you know, what we're seeing in the numbers, in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, our oldest Americans are being hit the hardest in those areas. So it's something that we are really focused on.

That said, we are also, of course, deeply committed to equity and to making sure that we can make vaccines, Paxlovid, masks, and tests available in communities across the country. We're doing pop-up clinics. We are trying to meet people where they are to get them these products. We are trying to go through non-traditional channels to get these products to our most vulnerable populations.

On your second question -- on your second question -- I'm sorry, can you just remind me of the question? Testing to states? Is that what it was?

Q: Sure, yeah. I wanted to ask you about how you're working with states, given that so many of them have suspended their own operations to procure their own tests. Do you expect that states are going to rely more heavily on you, as the federal government, to provide tests should we see a stark increase in cases?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, here's what I will say: You know, we are reaching out to governors of every state, and we are lending a helping hand. We are stepping up and saying, "We will help you however we can to meet this moment in time."

And so whether it's testing, whether it's surge, you know, employees and medical personnel, whether it's helping them facilitate pop-up sites for vaccinations and test-to-treat, we are all in on supporting them however we can. And that door is open, and we continue to do that outreach all the time.

And -- oh, and I guess I should say, you know, we're continuing to pre-position personal protective equipment. I think I said that in my remarks. But as part of helping manage surge in the jurisdictions, we're relying not just on people but on supplies and other materials that we can send to them to the extent that they're short on things.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Thank you, [senior administration official]. And thank you, everybody, for joining. As a reminder, this call is embargoed until the morning. If you have any questions, just reach out directly to me. 

Have a good night.

5:24 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the Biden Administration's Winter Preparedness Plan for COVID-19 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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