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Public health experts will be listening as Biden speaks to the nation about omicron

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The omicron variant is now the dominant variant in the U.S. The CDC says it accounts for about three-quarters of all new infections. And with many Americans traveling to and attending holiday gatherings, hospitals are bracing for another winter surge. President Biden today is announcing yet another strategy to fight the pandemic. And in a moment, we will hear from the U.S. surgeon general about that. First, let's turn to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, who has been talking to public health experts about what they hope to hear from the president. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Morning, Scott.

DETROW: Well, the administration made getting COVID under control a central promise and focus. Do public health experts think the White House has been taking the right approach?

STEIN: The administration gets high marks for some things, especially rolling out the vaccines really quickly. But the general feeling I've been getting from health experts is that the White House has kind of put all of its eggs in one basket - you know, the vaccine basket. It hasn't done nearly as much as it could and should in other ways. Here's how Dr. Eric Topol at Scripps Research describes the administration's response.

ERIC TOPOL: It's highly reactive. There's no aggressive boldness, proactive features whatsoever.

STEIN: And Topol and others say that's why there's always a sense that the country keeps getting blindsided by the virus and is constantly kind of playing catch-up.

DETROW: What would the experts like to see the president announce today?

STEIN: There's a long list of steps public health experts have been calling on the administration to do for months now, so a lot of this may sound familiar. And at the top of the list is, you know, tests - finally making those fast at-home tests really cheap, even free, and really easy to get. Tests are still way too expensive, and they're too hard to find. Here's Rick Bright. He's a former health official for the federal government, now at The Rockefeller Foundation.

RICK BRIGHT: We shouldn't have to win the Hunger Games to get a test in America.

STEIN: Now, the president is announcing plans today to distribute half a billion tests for free beginning in January, but experts say that will help, but many say it's still far from enough and may come too late for this surge. And testing, you know, is becoming more important than ever, in part because of the new antiviral drugs that are coming that need to be taken right after someone gets infected. I'm also hearing a lot of people say the federal government should authorize those new antiviral drugs fast and dramatically ramp up production of those drugs to make sure there's enough.

DETROW: Anything else experts are talking about?

STEIN: You know, many experts say the federal government should be doing more to improve ventilation inside buildings and should be literally mailing high-quality N95 or KN95 masks to any - everyone's homes. Some are even calling for new mask mandates. And, you know, why hasn't the administration finally required vaccination or testing or both for domestic travel? If you have to get tested and vaccinated to fly from London to New York, why don't you have to do the same thing to fly or take a train or bus inside the U.S.? And there's more. Change the definition of fully vaccinated to include getting boosted. Maybe shorten the time people have to wait to get boosted. Shorten the time that people who test positive have to stay out of work. Otherwise, our hospitals may not have enough doctors or nurses, or we may not have enough pilots or truck drivers and other workers to keep the economy open.

DETROW: Have you heard whether the administration is thinking about any of these next steps?

STEIN: You know, so far, no. You know, I've been told that the administration may try to reframe the focus away from counting new infections to focus more on hospitalizations and deaths. You know, some public health experts think that's smart. Keeping people out of the hospital and alive is obviously what matters most. But others worry we're already not paying enough attention to asymptomatic or mild infections because they play a role in spreading the virus and can lead to long COVID.

DETROW: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.