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The White House is shifting gears in the battle against COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden says the United States is moving into a less disruptive phase of the pandemic. So how is the administration adjusting? Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At the height of the omicron wave, there were more than a thousand military personnel deployed to hospitals in hot spots around the country. Yesterday, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the last of those surge teams was sent off with applause.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Dr. Michael Good is CEO of University of Utah Health.

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MICHAEL GOOD: I want to thank the U.S. Navy medical team for coming to our aid.

KEITH: Nationwide, hospitalizations are way down. And COVID deaths are finally falling, too. But there's a nagging sense that COVID may bring more unwelcome surprises. In remarks at the White House, Biden said COVID isn't over. But it no longer has to control people's lives.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Cases are ticking up, as we thought they might. But now, thanks to the foundation we've laid, America has the tools to protect people, all people.

KEITH: Biden was announcing the launch of a new website, COVID.gov, that is meant to be a one-stop shop for COVID information, testing and even treatment with anti-viral pills that can prevent hospitalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: No longer will Americans have to scour the internet to find vaccines, treatments, tests or masks. It's all there.

KEITH: With this website, Dr. Leana Wen, who teaches public health at George Washington University, sees the White House making a shift in its emphasis.

LEANA WEN: Previously, it was about government responsibility and government mandates. Now it's about the government empowering individuals with the tools that they need.

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JEFF ZIENTS: Obviously, we could not have done this six or eight months ago because we didn't have all the tools we have now.

KEITH: Jeff Zients is the White House COVID response coordinator. Antiviral pills and at-home rapid tests have only become widely available in the last couple of months. The supply finally caught up after the omicron wave crested. So people may not be rushing to COVID.gov today. But Zients says this is about having everything ready when people need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZIENTS: I mean, we have the infrastructure in place. At the same time, we need to make sure that we stay prepared, that we continue to have the tools to protect the American people.

KEITH: Zients says if another variant sends hospitals back into crisis, those military medical surge units can be deployed again. At University of Utah Health, Dr. Kencee Graves says they are in much better shape than they were a month ago. But...

KENCEE GRAVES: Looking at any pandemic, on average, it ends socially before it ends medically, right? So socially, we just decide we're going to move on. But there's still sick patients in hospitals.

KEITH: She says, moving forward, she feels pretty good. But she's also looking over her shoulder at the BA.2 sub-variant of omicron or what might follow it.

GRAVES: So we look at Europe. Is that going to affect us? We look at New York. Is that going to affect us? And we just continue to evaluate the situation.

KEITH: She says, if they have to, they'll adapt, just as they have throughout this constantly changing pandemic. And it's with this context that the White House is urgently calling on Congress to pass new COVID preparedness funds. Wen says this is the time to be getting ready, not relaxing.

WEN: I mean, have we not learned that it is too late by the time you have a major surge on your hands to start ramping up?

KEITH: Bipartisan negotiations are ongoing, with disagreement about how much is really needed and whether money could be pulled from somewhere else.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

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