WASHINGTON — President Biden, looking to usher the nation out of the coronavirus crisis into what some are calling a “new normal,” used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to sketch out the next phase of his pandemic response, including a new “test to treat” initiative aimed at providing patients with new antiviral medications as soon as they learn they are infected.
With caseloads declining across the country, the coronavirus — perhaps the biggest challenge of the first year of Mr. Biden’s presidency — took a back seat in the speech to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the economy. Still, the president did not miss an opportunity to give himself a pat on the back for the latest Covid-19 trends.
“I know you’re tired, frustrated and exhausted,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “But I also know this: Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools that we have been provided by this Congress, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”
The White House has been working on a detailed new coronavirus response strategy, which officials said they would introduce on Wednesday. It is expected to address a broad range of issues, including developing new vaccines and therapeutics and how to keep schools and businesses open even if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse.
The idea behind the strategy is to get the nation out of crisis mode and to a place, Mr. Biden has said, where the virus will no longer disrupt everyday life, and Americans will learn to live with it. Mr. Biden spoke in broad strokes about the way forward, providing few details.
The “test to treat” initiative appears to be a central component of the new strategy. Under the program, Mr. Biden said, Americans could get tested for the coronavirus at a pharmacy and, if they are positive, “receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost.”
Although the pills, made by Pfizer, have been relatively scarce since the Food and Drug Administration approved them late last year, Mr. Biden said in his speech that “Pfizer is working overtime to get us one million pills this month and more than double that next month.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide additional details, said people could receive pills through the program starting this month, including at places like CVS, Walgreens and Kroger.
The initiative will also involve educating the public about the availability of new antiviral treatments, the official said, and the importance of starting them soon after the onset of symptoms. And it will distribute antiviral pills directly to long-term care facilities.
Mr. Biden also vowed to prepare for new variants, saying that if necessary, his administration could deploy new vaccines within 100 days of a variant’s arrival. He called on Congress to provide new funding for the administration to stockpile more tests, masks and pills.
“I cannot promise a new variant won’t come,” Mr. Biden said. “But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”
Over the past week, as top federal health officials have been debating the new strategy, they have been evaluating a 136-page blueprint by outside experts whose recommendations include stronger air filtration systems in public buildings, billions of dollars in research and a major upgrade to the nation’s public health system.
Titled “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Road Map for Living With Covid,” the plan assumes that there will be fewer deaths from Covid-19 this year.
An average of about 66,000 new coronavirus cases are being reported each day in the United States, according to a New York Times database. That is far less than the average daily caseload of about 800,000 in January, at the peak of the winter surge fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant. But it is still more than five times as much as the daily caseload last June, before the Delta variant drove a summer surge.
Even as Mr. Biden proclaims that things are getting better, large segments of the American population remain at risk. Children under 5 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. On Monday, New York State health officials released data showing that the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech is much less effective in preventing infection in children 5 to 11 years than in adolescents or adults.
And an estimated seven million Americans have weak immune systems, illnesses or other disabilities that make them more vulnerable to severe Covid. The White House announced last week that it was taking several steps to make masks and coronavirus tests more accessible to people with disabilities.
“We’re leaving no one behind or ignoring anyone’s needs as we move forward,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday night.
The White House also announced steps on Tuesday to protect nursing home residents and hold providers accountable for unsafe and substandard care, including by expanding inspections and financial penalties on what the White House is calling “bad actor nursing homes” and “poor-performing facilities.”
Mr. Biden learned the hard way that predicting the course of an unpredictable virus is dangerous business. On July 4 last year, he declared that the United States was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” Then the Delta variant hit, and Mr. Biden’s remarks looked naïve.
Now, state and local governments across the country, many led by Democrats, have dropped their mask mandates. More coronavirus precautions are likely to slip away after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance last week.
The guidance no longer relies solely on case counts to gauge whether masks and other safety measures are needed; it suggests that 70 percent of Americans can stop wearing masks for now, and that they no longer need to socially distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces.