With the nation yearning for a new normal after its long struggle with the coronavirus, U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra warned Thursday that vaccines, tests and treatments will be “stuck on the ground” unless Congress provides the additional funds the White House has demanded.
“We have reached a pivot point,” Becerra said in an interview with The Associated Press. “How well we pivot is on us.”
Omicron variant BA.2, which is causing a virus rebound in Europe and Asia, is gaining ground in the U.S., although overall cases here are still in decline. Becerra said a funding impasse with Capitol Hill could stifle the administration ’s promising new strategy called “Test to Treat.” People could go to their local drugstore for a COVID test, and if they’re positive, receive medication they could take at home.
“If you don’t have the dollars to let it fly, you’re stuck,” Becerra said. “You’re stuck on the ground.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Becerra also expressed concerns about cases rising among children as schools lift mask requirements, and he pleaded that kids not be stigmatized if they continue to wear masks.
He also said his Department of Health and Human Services is trying to prepare so millions of people do not lose health insurance once their eligibility for Medicaid lapses when the government ends the official COVID public health emergency.
A new normal is within reach, but it depends on two things, Becerra said. One is the virus itself, which has proven hard to control. The other is Americans’ sense of personal responsibility. With less than half the eligible population now boosted — even as medical experts weigh a new, fourth round of shots — an appeal to personal responsibility may get tuned out by many.
Asked about the likelihood of a return to more relaxed and normal living, Becerra said, “If everyone does their part, then yes.”
But he quickly added, “If not, get ready. This thing is hard to tame. COVID has taken us on a wild ride.”
The White House and Congress are in a standoff over President Joe Biden’s request for $22.5 billion to continue the government’s COVID response this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried for a $15.6 billion package, but varying objections from Democrats as well as Republicans have kept a deal from going through. The White House says money for some efforts, including the purchase of more booster doses and for monoclonal antibody treatments will run out by the end of this month. Also at risk of lapsing: free treatment for uninsured people.