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White House preparing to ask Congress for more funding for therapeutics, vaccines, other coronavirus health needs

The surge in omicron cases and spiking demand for tests has strained the health system.

The White House after the snowstorm earlier this week. (Joe Flood/Flickr)

White House officials are working on a request to Congress for an additional coronavirus-related health spending package as the nation continues to battle the pandemic, three people with knowledge of the matter said.

The administration says no formal request is imminent and that it has sufficient funds to respond to the current omicron surge.

But officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget and Department of Health and Human Services have started putting together a longer-term funding request that is expected to ask Congress for tens of billions of dollars more, likely centered around covid-19 therapeutics and ramping up vaccine distribution, the people said. The request is also expected to include money to assist in global vaccine efforts. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of a plan not yet finalized.

The White House has not said how much it has left in health funding to respond to the ongoing pandemic, and budget experts say accurate estimates are impossible given publicly available figures. But the administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters, said White House aides believe an additional funding request to Congress is likely necessary in the coming weeks. Administration officials stressed they have enough funding for the current surge and the extra money would be to prepare for future contingencies.

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The decision to request more aid may prove politically fraught for the administration, which has faced an immense backlash over a lack of preparedness in testing, particularly as the omicron variant caused cases to surge across the country. The Washington Post reported Thursday night that the administration and U.S. Postal Service are finalizing plans to ship tests to U.S. households as soon as next week.

Omicron is the fifth coronavirus variant of concern and is spreading rapidly around the world. Here’s what we know. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Asked for comment, an OMB official said the administration has sufficient funding for its “immediate needs” and has nothing further to report about an additional request from Congress.

With health officials increasingly resigned to the reality that coronavirus will not be easily eliminated by widespread vaccinations, the White House is hoping that therapeutics will help contain the harms from the fast-spreading disease. The administration last year spent more than $5 billion to purchase 10 million courses of Pfizer’s antiviral pill regimen, Paxlovid, which works to keep infected patients out of the hospital.

Biden this week announced that the federal government would purchase 10 million more courses of the easy-to-use treatment, to be delivered by the end of September, although health officials worry that the total need for Pfizer’s antiviral will surpass the available supply.

President Biden on Jan. 4 said that the national supply of the coronavirus treatment pills will “ramp up over the coming months." (Video: The Washington Post)

Administration officials also have looked to ramp up global vaccinations, seeking to head off the possibility of more variants emerging overseas and ravaging the world. More than 3 billion people around the globe have yet to receive a single dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to data compiled by the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.

The American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in March 2021 included more than $100 billion in pandemic-related spending, while Congress has approved as much as $250 billion in pandemic-related spending since the coronavirus emerged, according to Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group.

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers has begun work on providing additional federal assistance to restaurants hit by the pandemic. That effort would also likely include public health money. About 80 House and Senate Democrats have pushed for another $17 billion for global vaccine distribution efforts.

For now, the White House has largely resisted calls for more economic assistance in response to the pandemic, as inflation — exacerbated by large amounts of government spending — has emerged as the administration’s chief economic concern.

“We did a major relief package that included helping restaurants just last year. We are in constant discussions with Congress and leadership about the needs of the American people — whether they are small businesses or restaurants or people sitting in their homes — as we continue to fight the pandemic,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Jan. 5 said the administration is in constant discussions with lawmakers about potential need for coronavirus relief. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Any request for additional health-related funding would likely require the support of Republican lawmakers to pass. But it is unclear whether they would go along with any such effort, given the extent of opposition to Biden’s coronavirus-related measures in the Republican Party.

Several budget experts said spending federal money on coronavirus mitigation is a worthwhile investment given the impact of the virus on the economy and the health of millions of Americans.

“The situation is clear. There’s a shortage of testing equipment and testing kits, and I think Republicans would support that given the current situation of how explosive omicron has been,” said G. William Hoagland, a budget expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan group. “I don’t think there will be a fight over additional testing money.”