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Experts say these changes could help the U.S. live with COVID

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We are in the midst of a viral blizzard. So how do we get out of it and return to something that approximates a new normal? A year after the incoming Biden administration announced its strategy to put the pandemic behind us, several of his former COVID advisers have published some new insights and recommendations. They are in the medical journal JAMA. And NPR's Allison Aubrey is here with some highlights.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So back a year ago, I guess it was then President-elect Biden put expanded testing near the top of his list. And I got to say, here we are and it is still really hard to get a test. What gives?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, you know, early on, there was progress. Testing sites expanded. The FDA approved more rapid tests. But then as cases dropped last spring, the focus on testing disappeared. One manufacturer of rapid tests, Abbott, shut down one of its facilities. President Biden started talking about July 4 as the target date to celebrate our independence from the virus. Everything seemed good. Then bam - delta, now omicron. Here's Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania. He was an adviser to Biden on COVID and is an author of the new paper.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: I think testing is clearly a case of where we built up an infrastructure. It was pretty effective, but that was dismantled. You know, that makes no sense. And as a consequence, we do find ourselves behind the eight ball now. We need to have a clear vision. What is the role of PCR testing going to be? What is the role of at-home testing?

AUBREY: It's too late to fix all of this amid this surge. But for the future, he says the U.S. could adopt a standard testing program, one used across health care to identify COVID, flu and other respiratory viruses with a single test.

KELLY: That's interesting. Does a test like that already exist, a single test that would pick up everything?

AUBREY: Yeah. Yes. These combined tests have been developed, but they're not being used - not used in any systematic way. And more importantly, Dr. Emanuel says test results are not being linked to treatments. I mean, think about it. Right now, if you test positive at home with a rapid antigen test, do you let your doctor know? I mean, what treatments should you be receiving? There are two new antiviral medications approved, but you need to get them in the first few days of an infection for it to be helpful.

EMANUEL: We know that there's a very short time frame in which you can get either the oral antivirals or the monoclonals. We don't have a good, close link that someone who tests positive is assured that they are being considered for a treatment.

AUBREY: You know, right now, the medicines are in short supply. They're new. And the federal government has paid for supplies of them, so he says there needs to be a coordinated system to use them efficiently.

KELLY: And then talk about vaccines, which everybody says is the key to get the pandemic really behind us. And yet so many people remain unvaccinated. Any ideas from these former advisers on how to change all that?

AUBREY: You know, I spoke to Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. He's another author of these new papers. He says we're going to need near universal vaccination. So that may mean mandates for kids in schools just as, say, measles vaccines are mandatory. It may also mean, Mary Louise, a different kind of vaccine.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: These vaccines we have are remarkable, but they're not perfect. And if we could come up with a pan-coronavirus vaccine, one that could cover for multiple changes in the coronavirus such that every time a new variant emerges, we wouldn't be sitting here asking ourselves is this going to be - are we going to be protected or not?

AUBREY: That would make us more resilient, he argues, if people are willing to get it. Now, there's already research into this. He says, bottom line, getting to a new normal means accepting COVID is not going away but will be a lot more manageable with more comprehensive strategies to detect it and treat it.

KELLY: More manageable - I would take it.

NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.