White House resumes Covid briefings after six-week hiatus as cases rise

The White House resumed its coronavirus briefings on Wednesday after a six-week hiatus as Covid-19 cases rose across the nation, with the new head of Covid response calling on Congress for additional funding to pay for vaccines and treatments.

“I want to make sure we have enough resources so that we can buy enough vaccines for every American. I think that is absolutely critical. We do not have the resources to do that right now,” said Ashish Jha, the White House’s new coronavirus response coordinator, who replaced Jeff Zients in March. “So without additional funding from Congress, we will not be able to buy enough vaccines for every American who wants one.”

The last White House coronavirus briefing was held on 5 April. Since then, various mask mandates have been lifted across the country, including those on planes, trains and in automobiles.

Jha explained that the administration has not stopped fighting the virus, however, noting that it has increased its rapid test kits allocated to each household from four to eight kits. “We know there are multigenerational households, we know that there are households with more than four people and we want to make sure that we make as many tests as we can possibly make available,” he said.

Jha also revealed that the administration has seen a dramatic increase in the use of the Covid-19 pill Paxlovid, with demand increasing fourfold in just the previous month.

“Our latest estimates are that about 20,000 prescriptions of Paxlovid are being given out every day. I think that is actually a really important reason why, despite the very substantial increase in infections, we have not seen a commensurate increase in deaths,” Jha said.

Jha also renewed his pleas for Congress to authorize additional funding so the government could purchase more vaccines and Covid-19 treatments.

“If we don’t get more resources from Congress, what we will find in the fall and winter is … a period of time where Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries in Europe and Canada with access to these treatments that Americans would not have.”

The resumed briefing comes as the US marks a grim milestone, now that more than 1 million people have been officially counted dead since the pandemic began in March 2020, and the real number likely to be much higher.

The US has one of the highest mortality rates in the world: 303 dead from Covid-19 out of every 100,000 residents, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The huge toll has set the US apart from other wealthy nations, in a crisis exacerbated by the country’s deep-rooted inequality, broken healthcare system and fraught politics.

“In terms of understanding why we had such a bad experience from the pandemic, we have to think about the systemic issues that already were in place when the pandemic arrived,” Steven Woolf, a social epidemiologist and population health researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Guardian. “And, on top of that, mishandling of the pandemic by the government and by the public, frankly.”

According to data from the New York Times, for the first time since 20 February, the daily average of Covid-19 cases in the country surpassed 100,000, marking a 61% rise from two weeks ago.

Although deaths have been declining, hospitalizations have been on the rise: up by 25% in the past two weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Rochelle Walensky, reaffirmed the importance of booster shots at the briefing.

“Our vaccine effectiveness cohort studies have shown Covid-19 vaccines generally remain effective in preventing severe disease, including protecting against Omicron. However, we also know that protection from Covid-19 vaccines wanes, or becomes less protective over time, especially in the Omicron era,” she said.

“This is one of the reasons vaccine boosters are so important.”

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