U.S. officials prepare for pandemic's next phase as Omicron wanes

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WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - U.S. health officials said on Wednesday they are preparing for the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic as Omicron-related cases decline, including updating CDC guidance on mask-wearing and shoring up U.S. testing capacity.

The plans come as a growing number of U.S. states have begun to ease COVID-19 restrictions as cases decline. The seven-day average of daily cases dropped 40% from the previous week, while the daily hospital admission average dropped 28% and the average daily deaths dropped 9%, according to CDC data.

"We're moving toward a time when COVID isn't a crisis, but is something we can protect against and treat. The president and our COVID team are actively planning for the future," White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters.

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"Our highest, first priority is fighting Omicron," Zients said. "At the same time, we are preparing for the future."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is weighing new COVID-19 guidance, including on when to wear face masks, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at the same briefing, adding that hospital capacity will be a key metric.

The CDC expects many of the revised guidelines will be issued in late February or early March, around the same time mask mandates in several states are lifted, she said.

"We want to give people a break from things like mask- wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," said Walensky.

Walensky cautioned that people will still have to wear masks in certain situations such as when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, during the ten days following a COVID-19 diagnosis, or following exposure to someone with COVID-19.

Tom Inglesby, the White House's adviser for COVID-19 testing, said the administration had issued a formal request for information to related companies about how to bolster the nation's testing capacity, including details about supply-chain challenges and market volatility.

The industry's response will help direct U.S. investment, he said at the briefing.

Around 50 million to 60 million people can currently obtain free at-home COVID-19 tests over-the-counter using their insurance cards and the administration is working with more insurers to create point-of-sale options, said Inglesby.

The government has already shipped 50 million orders, or 200 million individual tests, as part of its plan to deliver free tests, said Zients.

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Reporting by Susan Heavey and Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington Editing by Matthew Lewis

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