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WH talks $1.7B plan to track COVID variants amid ‘very concerning’ rise in cases

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The White House on Friday unveiled a sweeping, $1.7 billion plan to fight COVID-19 variants — amid a “very concerning” rise in cases and hospitalizations.

“Today we are announcing a $1.7 billion investment to bolster the ability of the CDC and state and local public health departments to monitor, track and defeat emerging threats — whether it’s COVID-19 variants today or others in the future,” Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to President Biden’s coronavirus response team, said at a press conference.

The program will track the variants — which are believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible — through a process known as genomic sequencing.

“This funding will enable the CDC to do more to detect variants earlier,” Slavitt said.

Paid for by Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, it will include $300 million for six genomic epidemiology “centers of excellence” along with $10 million for COVID-19 testing in schools.

 Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to President Biden's coronavirus response team, speaking during a press conference.
Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to President Biden’s coronavirus response team, speaks during a press conference.
White House

Genomic sequencing gives scientists the detailed genetic code of a virus, laying out a microscopic roadmap for how to defeat the bug.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19 those tests are often sent to a second lab for genomic sequencing. The procedure also allows scientists to monitor constantly-changing coronaviruses over time to better understand how they might impact public health, according to the CDC.

Funds will also go to staffing, electronic infrastructure, equipment and training, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The announcement came as Walensky cited a disturbing rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations — with the country’s seven-day case average up 8.1 percent this week and the seven-day hospital admission average up 4.5 percent.

The CDC reported an average of 69,577 new infections each day nationwide in the week ending Wednesday and 5,507 hospitalizations per day in the week ending Tuesday.

COVID-19 deaths also rose sharply — with the country’s seven-day average up 10.8 percent to more than 700 deaths per day.

Walensky also noted that average daily deaths had increased for the third day in a row.

“The increasing trends in cases, hospitalizations and deaths are very concerning — and they threaten the progress we’ve already made,” she said, adding that 73,622 new infections were reported on Wednesday, the most recent statistics available.

Walensky warned that roughly 56 percent of coronavirus cases now found circulating in the US are variants of the original COVID-19 strain.

A man is seen taking COVID-19 test at LabQ Diagnostics mobile testing site in New York City.
A man gets a COVID-19 test at a LabQ Diagnostics mobile testing site in New York City.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

There are more than 20,900 cases of B.1.1.7, the highly contagious variant that first emerged in the UK, across the country, according to CDC figures.

More than 450 cases of the South African variant, B.1.351, have also been reported.

“The emergence of variants underscores the need for rapid and ongoing genomic surveillance … to prepare the country for a next pandemic,” she said.

In addition, White House officials announced a $4 billion program to help hard-hit American Indian and Alaskan Native communities fight the virus.

People walk past the BioReference coronavirus testing site in Times Square on April 01, 2021 in New York City.
People walk past the BioReference coronavirus testing site in Times Square on April 1, 2021, in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than the non-hispanic white population, due in part to lack of access to health care, officials said.

Native people are also more than four times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of the virus.

The program — also funded by the $1.9 trillion stimulus package — will provide expanded COVID-19 vaccination efforts, more testing and educational outreach in those communities, and improved access to personal protective equipment, officials said. 

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