COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients answers questions during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 13. File Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 6 (UPI) -- The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a $1 billion investment to expand access to at-home testing, putting the country on pace to quadruple the number of tests available to Americans by December.
The increase will boost the number of rapid at-home tests available per month to 200,000 by December, Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said during a briefing in which officials provided updates on testing, vaccinations and therapeutics.
The investment comes on top of a $2 billion commitment to expand access to testing announced in September.
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized an additional rapid at-home COVID-19 test from ACON Laboratories. The Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test is the latest of more than 400 COVID-19 tests and sample collection devices the FDA has authorized since March 2020.
Zients also announced Wednesday plans to double the number of local pharmacies that will offer free COVID-19 testing as part of the federal government's pharmacy program to 20,000 with 10,000 additional community-based sites offering free testing.
"Together the steps we're taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or ZIP code, can access accurate, convenient and affordable testing," Zients said.
President Joe Biden was expected to travel to Chicago on Thursday to discuss vaccination mandates. Chicago-based United Airlines is among the first major airlines to require COVID-19 vaccination.
"Vaccination requirements work," Zients said. "New data reinforces that fact each day."
Zients also updated progress on COVID-19 booster shots, saying that about 4 million Americans have gotten booster shots, doubling the number who received the shots in the first week after the shots were approved on Sept. 22.
"Our booster program is not only up and running, but it's also accelerating," Zients said.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have declined in the past week.
She reported a seven-day average of 97,910 new COVID-19 cases per day, a 12.5% decrease from the previous week. Hospitalizations were down about 14.6% to an average of 7,464 per day and average daily COVID-19 deaths have remained steady at about 1,400.
Walensky said health officials are concerned about the possibility of a severe flu season after last year's mild season.
"An increase in flu infections and flu severity could put an additional burden on our healthcare system and increase stress on our nation's healthcare workers," Walensky said.
She urged Americans to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza and said it was safe and effective to get both vaccinations at the same time. Influenza kills 12,000 to 52,000 people each year.
"Getting vaccinated against flu and against COVID-19 is the best way that everyone can stay healthy, protecting themselves, their loved ones and their community," Walensky said.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, updated progress on the Biden administration's $3.2 billion investment in the development of antiviral treatments.
Merck's oral antiviral drug molnupiravir has shown promise in trials as a possible treatment that people could take home soon after COVID-19 diagnosis to reduce the risk of severe outcomes, Fauci said, cautioning that the drug still must undergo close scrutiny by the FDA.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy touted vaccine mandates, stressing that such requirements are not new, they work and they are essential for protecting the common good.
Murthy pointed out that vaccine requirements have existed throughout the nation's history, noting that then-Gen. George Washington required soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox in 1777, public schools began requiring vaccinations in the 1800s and doctors and nurses have complied with vaccine requirements for years.
"Vaccine requirements reflect a fundamental reality that our individual decisions affect other people when it comes to COVID," Murthy said. "We don't live in a bubble. We live in a community.
"Looking out for one another, for our collective health and wellbeing, is at the heart of what makes us strong and resilient as a nation," he added. "Vaccine requirements help us continue this tradition of protecting the common good."