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Opinion Vice President Harris has covid-19. She can help shift how we live with it.

Vice President Harris during remarks at Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc, Calif., on April 18. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
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It was virtually inevitable that either the president or vice president would eventually contract the coronavirus, despite their vaccinations and elaborate protocols put in place to protect them. Now that Vice President Harris has tested positive (but, so far, remains asymptomatic), the White House and public health authorities should use the opportunity to educate the public and undertake a reset to starting putting covid-19 behind us.

This is not 2020 or even 2021. As Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters on Tuesday, the country has reached at an “inflection point.” All Americans, except those under the age of 5 or who are immunocompromised, can be fully vaccinated and dramatically reduce their risk of being hospitalized or dying from covid. They can further manage risk and reduce it by wearing a mask if they so choose.

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And if they do become ill, there are now a plethora of therapies available to make the illness less severe. In other words, instead of mask mandates, the focus should be on promoting vaccination (including boosters), moving swiftly to approve vaccines for the very young, making therapies widely available and researching long covid.

This shift would be easier to manage if lawmakers did their job. While the administration has put in an order for 20 million doses of the antiviral pill Paxlovid and will allow pharmacies to order the drug directly from the federal government, Congress has failed to supply adequate funding for the administration’s covid response. The Associated Press reports that this lack of funding means the government is “losing out on critical opportunities to secure booster doses and new antiviral pills that could help the country maintain its reemerging sense of normalcy, even in the face of potential new variants and case spikes.” Jha also explained on Tuesday that the money can be used to expand “test to treat” sites and educational efforts to explain the benefits of Paxlovid.

Now might be a good time for a presidential address to convey four essential points: First, if you are not vaccinated, you are needlessly putting your life at risk — similar to driving a car without a seat belt. Second, Congress is endangering the public by refusing to fund the administration’s covid response. The president should hammer this home with recalcitrant lawmakers in their home states and districts if needed. Third, tracking case numbers has become meaningless, if not counterproductive. Public health officials should instead be tracking serious cases, deaths and hospital capacity to give people an accurate picture of their health risks. Finally, it is essential to complete trials and approve vaccinations for children under 5, thereby protecting their health and alleviating parents of the need to abide by excessive restrictions.

Jha conceded on Tuesday that the goal is not to ensure that no one is infected with the coronavirus, but rather to prevent people from becoming seriously sick. Continuing to fear infections among healthy and fully vaccinated adults is irrational. Universal mask mandates and closures of schools and other facilities at this point will only erode public faith in the health-care system.

Once she has completed her isolation, Harris will be the ideal person to carry this message. Because she is fully vaccinated, her infection is an inconvenience, not a threat to her health. If she had become ill, she would have had access to antiviral medications — which all Americans must be able to access. Congress needs to move promptly to make that a reality.

Americans can breathe a sigh of relief — if not celebrate — that the vast majority of the country need not fear death or serious illness — especially if lawmakers and scientists reviewing vaccines for children do their jobs. That’s no small accomplishment.

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