Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
3:04 P.M. EDT
MR. ZIENTS: Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us. In a moment, I'll turn to Drs. Walensky, Fauci, and Murthy.
I'll start by discussing the progress we're making on testing, vaccination, and boosters -- three critical parts of the President's six-point plan to accelerate our path out of the pandemic.
First, testing: In the past few months, testing has increased, particularly at-home testing -- a convenient option that came to market earlier this year.
To meet this increased demand, the President's plan ramps up both the availability of tests and access to free testing. In just a matter of weeks, we've made significant progress on both fronts.
In September, at the President's direction, the federal government invested $2 billion to ensure tests are available to those who need them, and to provide manufacturers with purchase commitments that allow them to ramp up their production.
And this week, we're making even more progress. On Monday, FDA authorized a new rapid, at-home test from ACON Laboratories, which will bring tens of millions more rapid, at-home tests to the market.
Over the past day, we've also received commitments from two manufacturers -- Quidel and OraSure -- to further expand manufacturing and to speed up their production of rapid tests, taking months off their timelines and adding tens of millions of tests per month to their production capacity.
And, today, we're making another billion-dollar investment to further mobilize testing manufacturers. This means companies will be able to expand production of tests even further, based on the U.S. government's commitment to procure an additional 180 million rapid tests over the course of next year, with tens of millions more tests coming to market over the course of the next 30 days.
Thanks to the President's actions in September, we were on track to double the supply of rapid, at-home tests available on the market each month by early November.
Authorization of the new ACON test on Monday accelerates this pace, and we are now on track to triple the number by early November.
And then today's billion-dollar investment to further expand testing production puts us on track to quadruple the amount of at-home, rapid tests available for Americans by December.
So that means, we'll have available supply of 200 million rapid, at-home tests per month starting in December, with supply of tens of millions of additional tests coming on the market across the next few weeks.
At the same time as we increase rapid, at-home testing, we're increasing access to free testing. Free testing has been central to our COVID response from day one of the administration. And in early September, the President committed to expanding the number of pharmacies in the federal government's free testing program to 10,000 local pharmacies across the country.
We're on track to meet that goal in the coming weeks. And, today, we're doubling our commitment to a total of 20,000 local pharmacies.
That's 20,000 local pharmacies that will offer free testing through the federal government's pharmacy program. This represents an eightfold increase from when the President entered office. And that's on top of the 10,000 other community-based free testing sites in the country, many of which are supported by federal investments in community testing.
So, in total, we will have 30,000 community-based sites in the U.S. where people can walk in and get a free test -- absolutely, a free test.
To summarize, we are on track to quadruple the supply of rapid, at-home tests available to Americans by December to more than 200 million a month and to increase the number of places Americans can access free testing in the United States to 30,000 community-based locations.
Together, the steps we're taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or ZIP Code, can access accurate, convenient, and affordable testing.
Second, vaccinations: Vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top priority, including through vaccination requirements.
Last month, the President announced new vaccination requirements that will cover about 100 million Americans.
Tomorrow, the President will travel to Chicago, home of United Airlines, which was an early mover on vaccine requirements.
And in the last few days, we've seen American Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines all announce new vaccination requirements for their employees.
Vaccination requirements work. New data reinforces that fact each day.
On Monday, New York City reported that 96 percent -- 96 percent of its roughly 150,000 fulltime school employees had at least their first shot by the city's vaccination deadline.
So, from the U.S. military to big and small businesses, to colleges and universities, to healthcare employers, and now the largest school district in the nation: We have seen that vaccination requirements work to dramatically increase vaccination rates.
Third, booster shots: We're working with states, Tribes, and territories, pharmacies, community health centers, doctors, and other providers to get booster shots in arms.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is reaching out to over 700,000 veterans currently eligible to receive their booster.
And states -- including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington -- are leveraging support from the federal government to reach underserved communities, including by standing up community vaccination centers and meeting people where they are with mobile clinics.
This work is clearly paying off. We estimate that 4 million Americans have now rolled up their sleeves and gotten a booster shot, including 2 million in the first week and another 2 million in just the last five days.
So, our booster program is not only up and running, but it's also accelerating. And we're building on our strong start to get millions of eligible Americans their booster shot.
I'll close with this: We've made tremendous progress over the past eight months, and we are executing well against the President's six-point plan. We're on the right track, but we need everyone to do their part.
So, if you're unvaccinated or if you're eligible for a booster shot, please go get a shot today. It's free, safe, and easy.
With that, over to Dr. Walensky.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Jeff. Good afternoon. Let's begin with an overview of the data.
Our seven-day average is about 97,910 cases per day, which represents a decrease of about 12 percent over the previous week. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 7,400 per day, also a decrease of about 14 percent from last week. And the seven-day average of daily deaths remains fairly constant at 1,400 per day.
Each week, we share with you the science of why vaccination is our most powerful tool against COVID-19. We are committed to making sure that all eligible Americans receive the best protection against COVID-19 by getting vaccinated.
Currently, 186 million Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and we are adding hundreds of thousands of more each day.
Today, I want to remind you that vaccination is not just important for COVID-19, it's also important for preventing other infectious diseases, especially influenza or "flu."
This week, CDC has started collecting data for our full weekly influenza surveillance report, which we will start publishing online beginning on October 15th and continue throughout the flu season.
Each week, we publish comprehensive data on outpatient influenza-like illness, laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations, and influenza-related deaths.
Last year, there were very few flu cases, largely because of masking and physical distancing and other prevention measures put in place for the COVID-19 pandemic. With modest flu virus activity since March of 2020, CDC's flu experts are concerned that reduced population-level immunity to the seasonal flu could place us at risk for a potentially severe flu season this year.
The symptoms of flu can often be familiar to those -- similar to those with COVID-19, which can lead to additional needs for flu and COVID testing, and isolation for either of the diseases, especially in schools.
And even as average daily COVID hospitalizations are decreasing, we continue to see many hospitals and intensive care units across the country at full capacity.
Each year in the United States, influenza can claim between 12,000 and 52,000 lives, and results in 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations -- another toll we need to work hard to avoid.
Furthermore, an increase in flu infections and flu severity could put an additional burden on our healthcare system and increased stress on our nation's healthcare workers.
Please do your part to ensure that everyone is best protected against flu by getting vaccinated. CDC recommends flu vaccination for anyone who is six months or older. And just like with COVID-19, we need as many people as possible to be vaccinated for influenza so that we can provide protection for those who are at most risk, such as adults who are over 65; those of any age who have chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; and children, especially under five, who are at risk of severe complications from the flu.
I encourage you to take the time to get information you need and to roll up your sleeves to get vaccinated against the flu.
For those who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19, please consider rolling up your sleeves and receiving your flu vaccine alongside your COVID-19 vaccine. It is safe and effective to get both vaccines at the same time.
Getting vaccinated against flu and against COVID-19 is the best way that everyone can stay healthy, protecting themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.
Just yesterday I received my flu vaccination, as I do every single year, to protect myself, my family, and my patients.
Thank you. I'll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.
What I'd like to do in the next few minutes is talk a little bit about the therapeutic aspect of countermeasures against COVID-19, specifically pointing out a program looking at both the development and the discovery of new molecules.
When one looks at therapeutics for COVID-19 -- and these are just some selected therapeutics -- the two major concepts are to target the virus or to moderate an aberrant host response.
We already have one FDA-approved small molecule -- remdesivir. There are other antivirals in trial, which I'll get to in a moment.
Monoclonal antibodies have been very successful and are much more readily used right now for their success in the treatment particularly of early disease and, most recently, even for prophylaxis.
Moderating the host has been successful with drugs like dexamethasone and others that interfere with various components of the inflammatory pathway.
But what I want to talk about now is an approach towards the development of direct-acting, orally available antivirals -- as I've written about with my colleague, Dr. Cat Paules, recently -- when we talk about what the therapeutic landscape is.
So, I'm going to talk about a particular recent announcement, but I want to put it into perspective of what the broad program is so that you can understand things that you might expect in the coming months and years.
The Biden administration has invested $3.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan as part of this Antiviral Development Strategy that I mentioned just a slide ago.
It is referred to as the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, which aims to catalyze the development of new medicines to combat not only COVID-19, but to also prepare us and position us for therapies against other pandemic threats.
This is a slide of the replication cycle of SARS-CoV-2. And as you can see, on any viral replication cycle, there are areas that are vulnerable targets for the development of drugs, such as polymerase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, and entry inhibitors, among others.
This is very similar to the approach that was used for the highly successful development of combination drugs for HIV and for HCV, or hepatitis C virus.
The program has two components. One is to develop and accelerate the development of compounds that are already showing some promise. The second part, which will take years, is to expand our basic science knowledge in the discovery of new antiviral medications.
So when you look at those things that are already in development -- direct-acting antiviral drugs -- as I mentioned, they fall into a couple of different categories. The one that has recently gained attention is molnupiravir, which is a combination, as I'll mention, among a number of elements, a number of organizations to collaborate in this development.
As you know, a few days ago, there was an announcement by Merck and Ridgeback of a placebo-controlled trial of about 1,500 people in which the Data and Safety Monitoring Board stopped the study early, after the first analysis of 775 people. The endpoint of the study was the prevention of hospitalization or death. And the results were very encouraging: 7 percent hospitalization in the treatment arm, and 14 percent [hospitalization] or death in the placebo arm. That leads to a 50 percent decrease in the endpoint of hospitalization or death.
Of note, in the placebo group, there were eight deaths; in the treatment group, there were no deaths.
So now the Biden administration has announced the U.S. government procurement of this investigational antiviral for COVID-19 treatment. It is very important that this now must go through the usual process of careful examination of the data by the Food and Drug Administration, both for effectiveness but also for safety, because whenever you introduce a new compound, safety is very important.
I want to point out something that is of interest: that this is an example of a good cross-section collaboration and cross-sector collaboration in which basic research and product development was funded not only by my institute -- NIAID -- but by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Emory, Georgia State University of Alabama in Birmingham, University of North Carolina, Vanderbilt. And the drug was developed by Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory, called DRIVE, and it was finally licensed to Ridgeback, who then partnered with Merck -- an example of a true cross-sector collaboration.
So, finally, we have another potential tool -- again, pending very close scrutiny by the FDA -- a promising new oral drug that people could take at home soon after COVID-19 to reduce the risk of severe outcomes.
But having said all that, we always get back to the common message that we all give you, and that is vaccines. They remain our best tools against COVID-19, because it is much, much better to prevent yourself from getting infected than to having to treat an infection.
I'll turn it over to you now, Dr. Murthy.
SURGEON GENERAL MURTHY: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci. And it's nice to be with everyone again today.
Today, I'd like to speak about vaccine requirements. In the last few months, more organizations have announced COVID-19 vaccine requirements. And as all of you know, the President recently announced the federal government will be using its authorities and levers to require vaccination for federal workers, healthcare workers, and organizations with 100 or more employees. As Jeff mentioned, the President will be talking more about this in Chicago tomorrow.
I want to make three points today about vaccine requirements. First, vaccine requirements are not new. In 1777, President George Washington required soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox. In the 1800s, many public schools began to require vaccination for their students. During World War Two, the U.S. military required their troops to be vaccinated against a number of diseases, including typhoid, tetanus, and yellow fever.
For years, our doctors and nurses, including me, have complied with vaccine requirements in hospitals and other healthcare settings in order to care for patients. And the list goes on. Vaccine requirements are part of our historical effort to protect the public's health.
The second point I want to make is this: Vaccine requirements work. They increase vaccination rates.
Today, over 90 percent of children are vaccinated against polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps, and rubella by the time they turn two. And that high level of coverage has allowed us to protect the vast majority of kids from these diseases. That high degree of vaccination also shields the minority of children who may be immunocompromised or who may not respond to a vaccine.
For the COVID-19 vaccines, we've already seen that requirements work. To name just a couple of examples, over 99 percent of workers at United Airlines are in compliance with their company's vaccination requirements, up from 59 percent in August. And in the Henry Ford Health System, 98 percent of workers are in compliance with their organization's vaccine requirements, which is up from 68 percent when they announced the requirement.
The third point I want to make: Vaccine requirements reflect a fundamental reality that our individual decisions affect other people when it comes to COVID. We don't live in a bubble; we live in a community. And that is why there have been a number of instances throughout history where we have made a decision as a society to abide by common rules that protect the common good.
We've agreed to drive below the speed limit, recognizing that when we take on the risk of speeding, it can cost other people their lives. We have made rules so that people can't smoke in indoor bars and restaurants because secondhand smoke can harm the health of others.
Looking out for one another for our collective health and wellbeing is at the heart of what makes us strong and resilient as a nation. Vaccine requirements help us continue this tradition of protecting the common good.
Vaccine requirements are fundamentally about creating safer spaces for people to work, learn, and get healthcare.
We are incredibly fortunate to have vaccines that are highly effective and are proven to have a strong safety profile. The more people who get vaccinated, the more lives we will save and the faster this pandemic will come to an end.
Thanks for your time. And I'll pass it back to Jeff for questions.
MR. ZIENTS: Well, thanks, Doctors. Let's open it up for a few questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks. First question, let's go to David Lim at Politico.
Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. President Biden campaigned on expanding the availability of COVID-19 testing. I wanted to ask: Why are these new investments into at-home tests coming nine months after he took office? Some public health experts I've spoken to suggest that the focus and the vaccination campaign had the side effect of kind of an inadequate amount of resources being put into securing rapid tests. Should these contracts have been signed sooner, perhaps months ago?
MR. ZIENTS: So, you know, our testing strategy ensures widespread, high-quality, and affordable testing for symptomatic individuals. It also promotes regular screening for congregate settings like schools and nursing homes. In the fast -- in the past few months, testing has increased, particularly at-home testing, and that at-home testing, convenient option came to market just earlier this year.
So, to meet the increased demand, the President's plan has ramped up both the availability of tests and access to free testing.
Thanks to the $2 billion investment that we talked about last month, we're on track to double the supply to meet this increased demand for this new innovative, convenient product. And thanks to more action this week, as we talked about, and the authorization of the new test by the FDA -- another billion-dollar investment on top of that -- we're on track to quadruple.
So, we've increased access to at-home testing. As the innovation allowed for at-home testing to be approved earlier this year, more and more tests have come to market, including the product that just came to market this week.
I think it's important to also emphasize how we've had free testing from the beginning. And we continue to improve access there, making it more and more convenient for people to get a free test, and soon to be at 30,000 locations across the country.
So, we've made significant progress throughout the President's administration. Overall, we're approaching a run rate, by December, of about a half billion tests per month, about half of which will be the product that didn't exist when the President came into office, which is the popular at-home test.
And we'll continue to pull every lever, as we have throughout the pandemic response, on testing to expand manufacturing production of tests in order to make tests even more widely available and drive down the cost per test.
Next question, please.
MODERATOR: We'll go to Kelly Lienhard at Inside Health Policy.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my questions. I wanted to ask if any of these at-home tests the White House is planning on investing in -- are they all going towards putting more at-home testing on shelves in retail settings? Will any of these tests be distributed directly to workplaces and schools to test employees and students?
MR. ZIENTS: That -- it's a really good question. What the -- what the contracts allow for -- the purchases, the commitments by the U.S. government -- it allows the manufacturers to have the confidence in the demand to scale up their production. So, yes, the U.S. government will purchase tests and distribute them to community health centers and food pantries and other places across the country. But what this does, on top of that, is really expand their production so there's many more available -- at-home tests available for consumers, employers if they want to purchase them.
So, it's an industrial -- it's an expansion of the industrial base so that more manufacturing occurs based on the U.S.'s commitment to the testing -- to the testing sector.
MODERATOR: Let's go to Kaitlan Collins at CNN.
Q: Thank you so much. And thanks for doing this. Two questions. One, are you worried that widespread at-home testing is going to affect the public tracking of cases? And are you asking people to report their own positive cases?
And secondly, is this basically a guarantee from the government that from now on, inexpensive, rapid testing is widely available, given the number still seems pretty low if this is going into the idea of people testing on a regular basis while they're at home?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky, do you want to handle the first question on the tracking?
DR. WALENSKY: Sure. Thank you, Kaitlan, for that question. We are -- we continue to track PCRs, as well as PCR to positivity. And we do -- many of these tests allow for the tracking of rapid test positivity, point-of-care positivity. Some of these tests do so through an app. Many of the people who test through a rapid test will confirm by PCR positivity, so we continue to track those cases. And in some cases, we are relying on people to report their positivity.
MR. ZIENTS: Yeah, I think it's important, Kaitlan, when we talk about 200 million at-home rapid testing, that that's just one part of the testing landscape.
We also have lab-based PCR tests, as Dr. Walensky just described; free pharmacy testing -- that's the 20,000 locations that we're expanding to, plus another 10,000 sites around the country; schools are doing screening; testing in long-term care facilities; and state testing sites. So, overall, by the end of the year, we'll have a half billion tests per month -- about half of which are these, you know, popular, convenient, at-home tests.
So, the bottom line is there has been and there continues to be enough testing capacity in America. We'll continue to pull every lever to expand manufacturing and production of tests, which will have the impact of driving down the cost per test and making sure that tests are redal- -- widely available and convenient.
Next question, please.
MODERATOR: Let's go to Shira Stein at Bloomberg.
Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I have two questions about the testing announcement. What companies are you purchasing the $1 billion in tests from?
And then, you mentioned just now that your -- that you think of the -- the rise in the number of tests will drive down the cost. Twenty-four dollars a test is still pretty high for most people. Do you have any guarantees from those com- -- these companies in the contracts? Do you have any other methods that you're planning on taking to make widespread testing cheaper not just for people who can go to community health centers and food banks?
MR. ZIENTS: Yeah. So, I do want to emphasize that there is -- there are many free testing options. And due to action by the Biden administration, testing is covered by insurance. So, there are many ways to have tests without any out-of-pocket expense.
I don't want to get ahead of the contracting process and, therefore, will not talk about specific companies.
I will note that the ACON test that was approved by the FDA -- I believe that the plan there is for that to retail for less than $10 per test.
Now, what happens is, as we get more and more tests approved and manufacturing ramps up, pricing should come down as economies of scale are achieved and competition kicks in. So, we do anticipate that this innovation, this increase in capacity will drive down the price per test.
Next question, please.
MODERATOR: Last question. Let's go to Zeke Miller at AP.
Q: Thanks for doing this. On mandates, we have the President's trip tomorrow to Chicago. I was hoping you might be able to offer a little bit of a preview to that.
And then, separately, in Canada today, the government there announced a suite -- a whole -- a slew of sweeping vaccine mandates, including for domestic air travel, as well as train travel. Why has the U.S. still not, sort of, taken that step yet, Jeff? Can you speak to, sort of, the policy decision for why the White House has not gone that far? Is it a legal one? Is it a policy one? Is it a political question?
MR. ZIENTS: So, Zeke, on the travel question, you know that the President has taken many steps on vaccination requirements: healthcare workers through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid, and requiring vaccination for 17 million healthcare workers; the federal workforce requiring vaccinations; the military, under Secretary Austin, requiring vaccinations; the OSHA Department of Labor rule, which is coming for employers with more than 100 employees vaccinated or tested a minimum of once per week; international air travel will require vaccinated people coming from other countries -- full vaccination.
So, there's been a lot of work. The vaccination requirements cover about 100 million Americans.
So, I think it's clear that we're taking strong action -- the President is -- to get people vaccinated. And that's what he's going to talk about tomorrow in Chicago -- those actions, the impact that they're having, the fact that vaccination requirements, as Dr. Murthy said, do indeed work. They're good for the economy. They bring people back into the labor force. They bring consumers back to small businesses. And they're supported by the American people -- vaccination requirements.
And as Dr. Murthy said, they have a long history. We believe that vaccination requirements at workplaces are very effective and an efficient way to ensure people are vaccinated or tested, and we have the data, and then we'll highlight that data tomorrow on how effective, as Dr. Murthy said, these vaccination requirements are at driving up vaccination rates.
As to travel -- domestic travel, we're taking further action, as you know, by doubling the fines for noncompliance of masking on airplanes. We have a track record, and I think it's clear, that shows that we're pulling available levers to require vaccinations. And we're not taking anything off the table.
Thank you for today's briefing, and we look forward to seeing everybody soon. Thank you.
3:35 P.M. EDT
To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/COVID-Press-Briefi...
Joseph R. Biden, Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/352844