As America's pharmacists are well aware, the COVID-19 health crisis is far from over. Yet unlike the dark days when the virus first took hold, we now have an arsenal of tools – vaccines, therapeutics, rapid tests – at our disposal to fight back. Until now, the federal government has largely avoided mandating use of these tools, vaccines specifically. Instead, the government relied on Americans to voluntarily receive vaccines, along with mandates imposed by private businesses and local entities.
That all changed in mid-September, when President Joe Biden addressed the nation to lay out a new COVID-19 action plan. The plan, which the administration calls its "Path Out of the Pandemic," includes six key points. Those six points, along with an overview of key elements include:
- Vaccinating the Unvaccinated. All employers with 100 or more employees would have to require workers be vaccinated or undergo at least weekly COVID-19 testing. According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration is enlisting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to announce an emergency order to implement the vaccine mandate. The vaccine mandate would affect 80 million private-sector workers. Businesses that do not comply may face fines up to $14,000 per violation. The administration has also called for mandatory vaccines for all health care workers in facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements. This mandate would apply to an estimated 50,000 workers.
- Furthering Protection for the Vaccinated. The plan calls for easy access to booster shots for all eligible Americans. The administration had previously announced widespread access to booster shots as early as the week of September 20, subject to authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Once approved, the plan provides that booster shots be provided free of charge, and widely available across 80,000 locations, including pharmacies, doctors' offices, and community health centers.
- Keeping Schools Safely Open. The president's plan calls for mandatory vaccination requirements among the 300,000 educators who work in federal Head Start program facilities, along with personnel in schools operated by the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education.
- Increasing Testing and Requiring Masking. The Wall Street Journal reports that the plan calls for using the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests. The administration plans to spend roughly $2 billion to procure supplies of both rapid point-of-care tests and over-the-counter at-home tests. To improve access to rapid tests, major retailers that sell at-home tests – Walmart, Amazon, and Kroeger – will sell those tests at-cost for the next three months. The administration will also direct that Medicaid must cover at-home tests for free for beneficiaries. The plan also will expand to 10,000, the number of retail pharmacy sites around the country where anyone can get tested for free through the Department of Health and Human Services' free testing program. To reinforce masking, President Biden affirmed the requirement that masks be worn on all federal property. The president also called on the Transportation Security Administration to double fines on passengers who refuse to wear masks.
- Protecting Our Economic Recovery. The plan proposed new support for small businesses impacted by COVID-19 by strengthening the COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which provides long-term, low-cost loans.
- Improving Care for Those with COVID-19. Further, the Journal reports, "the administration also will increase shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments by 50%, surge federal strike teams to help beleaguered hospitals, and amend the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act so that pharmacists can provide the treatments for COVID-19."
The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) issued a statement in the hours following President Biden's national address: "We've been proud to have worked with the administration and Congress to expand the role of local pharmacists and the scope of their abilities as health care providers. And we are highly encouraged by several elements in the president's latest plan. Authorization for pharmacists to order and administer select COVID-19 therapeutics, including monoclonal antibody therapy, is an important measure that will save lives."
Further, the statement continued, "The expansion of testing to 10,000 additional pharmacies is a potentially important measure, but it's critical that patients can access their independent pharmacy for testing services. And, independent pharmacies are more than ready and able to administer millions of doses of the vaccine booster once they are approved."
Pharmacists can expect a flurry of news on each element of the plan, as details emerge and regulations are put in place. Several aspects of the plan, most notably the vaccine mandate, will be subject to legal challenges.
"As the president made clear," the NCPA statement continued, "this fight isn't over. We're at a critical point and bold action is necessary. Independent pharmacists are in this fight until we defeat the virus."