The new strategy, outlined in a roughly 100-page plan, is the product of nearly two months of work by the White House’s coronavirus response team and consultations with dozens of external experts, public health officials and governors. White House officials met with Biden several times as they crafted the new strategy, which the President had signed off on ahead of its upcoming release.
“He was very focused on getting it right and being clear with the American people on where we are, the tools we have and what they could expect — even from an unpredictable virus,” an administration official said.
The plan will acknowledge an understanding that “Covid is unpredictable, but clear that we don’t have to let Covid dominate our lives like it once did,” a senior administration official said. “It’s really more about preparedness and less about emergency response.”
The new strategy document draws on an internal government playbook that White House officials have crafted outlining how the government can most effectively respond to the emergence of new variants.
Officials from across the government last month put that playbook to the test, holding a multi-hour tabletop exercise on video conference involving a fictional variant that led to a spike in cases and increased strain on the nation’s hospitals, the senior administration official said.
The exercise involved nearly two-dozen officials from the White House, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The exercise focused on both the government’s immediate and longer-term response to a new variant, focused on assessing the new variant’s transmissibility, severity and response to existing vaccines as well as how government agencies would spring into action to respond — from issuing public health guidance to shipping new masks, tests and treatments across the country.
White House officials carefully documented their response to the Omicron variant and the subsequent spike in cases, eager to memorialize what went right and improve on other aspects of the response.
The White House faced fierce criticism about insufficient testing capacity in the country as the Omicron surge coincided with the holiday season, forcing the administration to scramble to secure more rapid at-home antigen tests to ship to Americans.
The senior official, who described the exercise and the internal playbook on condition of anonymity, said they built on lessons the government learned during the emergence of the Omicron variant and will allow the government to “more quickly” deploy items like free high-quality masks and tests in the event of another variant.
The goal of developing a playbook and testing it out in a tabletop exercise was to “institutionalize” aspects of the government’s response, like rapidly surging masks, tests, therapeutics and vaccines to areas in need. The new strategy relies on ensuring the government has stockpiles of those items ready to deploy in the event of a new, game-changing variant.
The government’s new strategy will be released days after the CDC established new metrics for assessing community risk to the coronavirus, assessing that more than 70% of the US population now lives in areas with low or medium Covid-19 community levels and no longer need to wear masks indoors.
The new strategy will not prescribe changes to the federal policy requiring masks on planes and trains, nor will it call for changes to the requirement that international travelers present a negative coronavirus test before entering the US, the senior administration official said.
Administration officials stressed that the US is now prepared to adapt a new, less disruptive strategy for responding to the coronavirus due to higher levels of vaccination, reduced risk of serious illness and an increased availability of effective therapeutics to treat Covid-19.
“The big thing moving forward is that we have the tools, we have worked hard as an administration and as the American people to protect ourselves, to move forward to where Covid doesn’t dictate how we live anymore,” the senior administration official said. “It’s because of all this hard work that we can move forward.”
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.