What President Biden says US needs to do to move on from COVID-19

Community Nursing Services nurse Janie Wilson prepares a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Olpin Student Union at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Jan. 20.

Community Nursing Services nurse Janie Wilson prepares a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Olpin Student Union at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Jan. 20. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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WASHINGTON — The United States has reached the point where COVID-19 "need no longer control our lives," President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, laying out what he described as "commonsense steps" toward moving forward from the pandemic.

Vaccines and boosters

Stay protected against COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and boosted, as well as through treatments, such as the Pfizer pills labeled Paxlovid. The president said the federal government has "ordered more of these pills than anyone in the world," with 1 million expected in March and double that amount in April.

The course of three pills taken twice daily for five days will be available free through the new "Test to Treat" initiative announced in the speech, allowing people to get tested for the virus, and if they're positive, to receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost.

The White House said Wednesday that hundreds of one-stop sites for testing and treatments are set to open across the country this month, at pharmacy clinics, community health centers, long-term care facilities and veterans health centers.

The new program comes as the Utah Department of Health is set to end most testing by March 31 as part of Gov. Spencer Cox's effort to shift the state's COVID-19 response to treating the virus like the flu or other endemic disease that remains deadly even as outbreaks become more limited.

Biden also said the administration "will be ready with plenty of vaccines" for children under 5 once they're approved. The Food and Drug Administration postponed action in February on reduced doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 6 months old after the results of the initial trials proved disappointing.

Treatments and free, high-quality N95 masks are available for the immunocompromised and other Americans who remain vulnerable to the virus, Biden said. And more free COVID-19 home test kits will be available from covidtests.gov starting next week, he said, even for those who have already ordered them.

The president touted the new mask guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Friday that mean "most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free," while even more of the country will fall under the new limits for cases and hospital admissions and capacities.

Prepare for new variants

The president said new vaccines could be deployed within 100 days, and, if Congress provides funding, more tests, masks and pills can be stockpiled. Biden said he "cannot promise a new variant won't come. But I can promise you we'll do everything within our power to be ready if it does."

The president said his administration "will never just accept living with COVID-19. We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard."

End shutdowns of schools and businesses

"It's time for Americans to get back to work," the president said. He said it's safe to begin returning to the workplace after working from home and that the "vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person." Children, Biden said, need to be in the classroom.

Continue vaccinating the world

The U.S. has sent 475 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to 112 countries, more than any other nation, Biden said, "and we won't stop. We have lost so much to COVID-19. Time with one another. And worst of all, so much loss of life."

He referenced the sharp divide throughout the country over COVID-19 mask mandates, vaccine requirements and other restrictions his administration has backed, calling for a reset.

"Let's stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: A godawful disease. Let's stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we really are: Fellow Americans. We can't change how divided we've been. But we can change how we move forward," the president said.

Biden also acknowledged the toll of the past two years of the pandemic, saying he knows Americans are "tired, frustrated and exhausted." But he said because of the efforts made, "tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines."

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, found a lot to like in what the White House is calling the president's national COVID-19 preparedness plan.

"It seems like a good plan. It's forward-thinking, which is something that we need to do," Kim said. "I like the commitment to vaccination, both nationally and globally. I really like the 'Test to Treat' program. It bypasses our health care system, which I think we need more of."

The professor said people don't always need to see a doctor for a diagnosis and prescription for clear-cut illnesses, suggesting the program allowing people to be tested for COVID-19 and be given free treatments immediately is something that "should be expanded greatly for other health conditions."

Where Biden's speech fell short, Kim said, was in support for the nation's public health infrastructure.

"It's been suffering financially for decades, and it really showed during the pandemic, so I'd love to see some investment there," he said, noting countries like South Korea were better prepared for COVID-19 because they beefed up their public health system after previous disease outbreaks.

"We need to do that," Kim said, "because this will happen again, and we need to be prepared."

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