The United States is at an inflection point in the coronavirus pandemic but needs Congress to authorize more funding to sustain progress, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said Tuesday.
Jha, making his first appearance in the briefing room, told reporters that while cases are on the rise because of the BA.2 variant of the virus, there is reason for optimism as hospitalizations and deaths are at some of the lowest levels of the pandemic to date.
“We are going to see cases go up and go down during this pandemic as we head into the weeks, months and years ahead,” Jha said. “The key things we need to be following— are health care systems getting stressed. Are people ending up in the hospital with severe illness. Are people dying at high rates.”
Jha spoke to reporters as the administration outlined additional steps to make more antiviral pills, known as Paxlovid, available to the public as a treatment option for those who test positive for COVID-19.
To boost availability, the administration announced Tuesday morning that the number of sites where the pills are available would soon increase from 20,000 to 30,000, and that it will work with pharmacies to increase that number to 40,000 “over the coming weeks.”
The administration will be stepping up education to doctors, including with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert issued Monday, to encourage them to prescribe them for people who are eligible.
But Jha warned the U.S. could remain vulnerable to setbacks in the fight against the pandemic if Congress does not authorize billions of dollars in additional funding. Congress has been unable to come to an agreement on $10 billion in funding for the pandemic in recent weeks, despite urgent pleas from the White House.
Jha said the additional money is needed to guard against future variants and to boost vaccination efforts around the world to prevent further spread of the virus.
“None of us can predict with any certainty where exactly this pandemic is going, what the virus is going to do next,” he said. “All we can do is prepare. And that’s what we need Congress to do is to help us prepare and be ready for whatever eventuality comes.”