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As COVID cases rise, the U.S. is in a better place than before, Jha says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Let's turn now to COVID. Case numbers are rising, but hospitalizations are at their lowest level since the lockdowns of March 2020. This is happening as mask mandates have been lifted on trains, planes and buses. So what's the outlook for the summer? Let's ask Dr. Ashish Jha. He heads the White House Coronavirus Response Team. Good morning, Dr. Jha.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me here.

FADEL: Thanks for being on the program. So cases are creeping up again. Should we be worried?

JHA: Yeah. So we are obviously paying very close attention to this and making sure that this does not translate into a lot more people getting seriously ill. But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, it's really worth understanding that this is happening in a context where more than 200 million Americans have been vaccinated; more than a hundred million Americans have been boosted. And so we absolutely have to continue to pay attention to this and minimize infections as much as we can. But I do think we're in a much better place than we've been in the past.

FADEL: So with the numbers going up, I want to ask you about COVID treatments. A powerful antiviral can keep people out of the hospital. And that COVID pill, Paxlovid, was considered part of the Biden administration's arsenal to fight the pandemic. But so many people just haven't heard about this pill; few prescriptions have been written. Do you plan to change this?

JHA: We absolutely plan to change this. So Paxlovid first became authorized by the FDA at the end of December, and there were very, very few pills around. The administration worked incredibly hard to both increase production and acquisition. And the good news is we've made really substantial progress. Now we've got to turn those pills into, you know, prescriptions and into things that patients can get so they can get better, if they get infected, with Paxlovid. And we have a big set of efforts that we have been working on and launching. And we're going to be doing a lot more this week. You know, the good news is we are seeing an uptick. We've seen a doubling of prescriptions just in the last 14 days. And my expectation is that is going to continue to increase in the days and weeks ahead.

FADEL: So if you're successful in getting the word out, do you have enough pills then?

JHA: We do for the short run. I mean, right now, we've done a really good job of acquiring pills. We have to make sure that this is more than a short-term solution. And there, we're going to need help from our friends in Congress. We're going to need Congress to help us fund acquisition of more pills. There are other treatments that are coming online. I want to make sure that Americans have access to those. So there's a lot of progress ahead, but we really need Congress to step up and fund that progress so we can continue getting these things for the American people.

FADEL: Before we get to the funding - I want to ask you about that - I want to first talk about equity. COVID has disproportionately hurt Black and brown communities, rural communities, basically poorer communities with less access. Are you working to make these more advanced treatments accessible to them?

JHA: Absolutely. So there are lots of ways that we improve access. First and foremost is we got to make these treatments free to people so that there are not financial barriers, right? But that's not enough. We actually need to make sure that as we're working on things like setting up tests to treat sites, thinking very deliberately about where are we setting them up, communicating to people; people who have very busy jobs, a single mom who might have three jobs, not so easy to take time off in the middle of the day and go see a doctor. There are lots of things that we can do to improve accessibility, things that will really address those disparities. And one of the things that we're doing is we're tracking this stuff to make sure that all of these efforts are translating into equitable distribution of these therapies.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned funding, and Congress is back in session this week. And the Biden administration is expected to renew its push to ask for $22 billion in COVID funding. How badly is that money needed?

JHA: Well, we should just think through the consequences of what happens if we don't get that funding. What happens is we run out of money to have pills, COVID pills, for Americans reasonably soon. We actually aren't even going to be able to pay our bills for what we've already entered into a contract with Pfizer for. So that's going to be a problem. The other part is, you know, FDA and working with manufacturers to identify the next generation of vaccines - that should be coming late fall, that should be even more effective and more durable - Americans aren't going to get access to any of those vaccines. And as I mentioned earlier, there's a whole new generation of treatments that are coming online. We will be not - we will not only not be first in line, we'll probably be last in line in getting those if Congress doesn't step up. I'm actually very confident Congress is going to do the right thing. You know, I really think Congress understands that they can't not fund this work.

FADEL: But Congress appears unwilling to give that full $22 billion. Is there a different, a lower number that will work?

JHA: No. I mean, you know, the bottom line is that that number is something that the administration really cut back its original request to arrive at. It has a very modest sum for fighting the pandemic on a global scale. There is no such thing as a domestic-only strategy for a global pandemic. We have to have a global strategy. It has very modest funding for therapeutics and vaccines and diagnostics. It's really the bare minimum that we need.

FADEL: So let's turn to masking now and the Justice Department. It's appealing the ruling that struck down the federal mask mandate on public transportation. But I've got to ask, is this more about the CDC's credibility, which has taken a hit as guidance has changed, and its public authority then about bringing back the federal mask mandate?

JHA: Well, it's about two things. I mean, first, it's about protecting the American people now. CDC scientists asked for a 15-day extension because cases were rising, as we discussed earlier. BA.2 has become dominant. And the scientists at the CDC said we need a little time to assess what the impact of this will be on severe disease, on hospitalizations and deaths. I think they deserve that time. And I was saddened to see a federal judge step in and not give the CDC that time. But the second is absolutely essential, that we preserve the CDC's authority to be able to intervene and protect Americans' public health at moments like this, at moments of health crisis. And if we lose that authority, that is something that will leave Americans far more vulnerable in the future.

FADEL: Very quickly, all this back and forth on mask mandates, it's confusing for people. Can you give us some clarity on who needs to wear masks when?

JHA: Absolutely. So CDC right now is very clear. If you're on public transportation, you should be wearing a mask. It's a good way to protect yourself and others. If you're high risk, if you're in an area with substantial transmission, indoors with poor ventilation, that's a really good time to be wearing a mask.

FADEL: OK. Thank you very much. Dr. Ashish Jha is the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.