White House readies roadmap for future COVID outbreaks, seeks funding

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - Top U.S. health officials on Wednesday laid out a national blueprint to manage COVID-19 going forward, vowing to prepare for any new variant outbreaks without shutting down schools and businesses and calling for additional funding from Congress.

The plan will help "move America from crisis to a time when COVID-19 does not disrupt our daily lives," the White House said, one day after President Joe Biden acknowledged the nation's fight against the coronavirus had entered a new phase.

"We must be prepared to respond to a new variant quickly and keep our schools and businesses open," the updated National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan said, citing a need to maintain vaccines and booster shots, treatments, tests and masks.

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The White House called for more funding to pay for COVID treatment and tests, among other efforts, but stopping short of requesting a specific dollar amount.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters in a news briefing that Biden's administration would work with U.S. lawmakers in the weeks ahead to finalize a figure. Sources familiar with the matter last month said the Biden administration was seeking another $30 billion from Congress. read more

Zients also called on Congress to reauthorize tax credits to pay for sick and family leave when people contract COVID.

The additional funding would help rebuild the nation's stockpile of tests, antiviral pills and masks for Americans; strengthen the nation's data collection and monitoring capabilities to detect emerging variants; and boost vaccine manufacturing, it said.

But Republican Senator Mitt Romney, in a tweet, said "a full accounting" of the trillions of dollars already approved was needed before lawmakers "could even consider supporting this request."

Restaurants re-open as people still wear their masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 8, 2022. REUTERS/David Swanson

"Questions are mounting about where exactly the additional money has gone," said a letter to Biden signed by 36 Republican senators including Romney on Wednesday, citing the $1.9 trillion authorized in March 2021 on top of previously-approved COVID relief funds before the president took office.

Biden, in his State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday, announced the U.S. Department of Justice would name a chief prosecutor to examine pandemic fraud.

He noted America must shift with infections declining and various precautions easing two years after COVID shut down large swaths of the country, but also cautioned against complacency against the disease, which experts have said could still surge again with new variants.

"We never will just accept living with COVID-19, we'll continue to combat the virus, as we do other diseases," Biden told lawmakers.

He also announced a new plan to allow Americans to get tested for COVID at a pharmacy and get free antiviral pills if they test positive. read more

More than 955,000 people have died from COVID in the United States since early 2020 with a total of 79,114,386 reported U.S. cases, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

U.S. officials said with vaccines and more widely available treatments and with cases trending downward, workers - including federal employees - can safely return to offices in coming days and weeks.

"We are clearly going in the right direction," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official. But, he added: "We know that we will have to contend with COVID at some level for some time to come."

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Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Michael Erman; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot

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