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The White House Is Expected To Announce A 6-Prong Plan To Address The Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden is set to announce later today that federal workers and contractors will be required to get a COVID vaccine as part of a new strategy to fight the pandemic. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been following this one. Rob, what do you know about the president's new plan?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The White House describes it as a six-pronged strategy that will involve both the government and the private sector. There aren't a lot of details yet, but a source familiar with the announcement tells NPR that it'll involve new steps aimed at vaccinating the unvaccinated and further protection for people who are vaccinated. The president will also address ways to keep schools open safely, increase testing and require masks, as well as protect the economy and improve care for people with COVID-19. I've talked to some public health experts who hope the administration will finally take some more aggressive actions like, you know, mandating vaccines for travel and get behind some kind of uniform national vaccination verification system.

KING: Is this a reset, Rob, as we watch cases rise and deaths rise?

STEIN: Yeah, I've been hearing a growing sense of disappointment and frustration over some of the ways the administration's handled the pandemic. The administration gets really high marks for a lot, especially for the first six months, you know, quickly ramping up the massive vaccination campaign and getting tens of millions of people vaccinated. But then the vaccination campaign kind of lost steam, and the administration's response started to stumble. Like in May, when the CDC abruptly dropped the recommendation that everyone keep masking, that kind of sent a message that the pandemic was over, and the country pretty much cut loose. I talked about this with Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.

LEANA WEN: It is directly as a result of the CDC's actions back in May and the Biden administration's lack of leadership that we have the surge that we're seeing now. What let delta gain a foothold? It was because of people's actions that were directly enabled by the Biden administration's response.

STEIN: And now we're seeing hospitals being overwhelmed around the country.

KING: And the guidance on boosters has been incoherent, too.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, first, no need for boosters; then everyone's going to get a booster on September 20. Then, maybe you won't have to wait eight months after your second shot for your booster; now, well, maybe only people who got the Pfizer vaccine will get boosters to start. So, you know, there's a lot of concern that the administration is sending head-spinning messages that are raising doubts about the vaccines and whether the White House is really letting the FDA and CDC lead the way like they promised. I talked about this with Dr. Celine Gounder at New York University. She advised the administration during the transition.

CELINE GOUNDER: It should not be a political decision. It should be coming down through the scientific and regulatory agencies. To assume that they would agree or rubberstamp such a plan, I think, is just wrong.

STEIN: And there are other concerns. You know, why is testing still so hard to get? Why is the U.S. relying on Israeli and British data to make crucial decisions? Why isn't the CDC tracking and analyzing all vaccinated people with breakthrough infections in this country way more closely? Here's Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel at the University of Pennsylvania. He's another former Biden adviser.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: The CDC has not done the job it should do for monitoring genetic variants as well as breakthrough. I mean, in May, we stop recording breakthrough infections systematically. That's not a good place to be.

STEIN: So people hope the administration's new plan will help get the country back on track. But they're worried, you know, especially because of the unrelenting resistance to masks from so many Republican governors and what's become entrenched misinformation about the vaccines.

KING: Hard to turn the tide, yeah. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.