Biden urges schools to remain open amid COVID-19 case surge, orders 20M antiviral pills

President Joe Biden addressed the COVID-19 case surge in the country before he spoke with his response team from the White House Tuesday afternoon. 

"We’re going to see, as you all been hearing, a continued rise in cases," he said from the White House.

"But you can protect yourself," he continued. "Get vaccinated. Get boosted. There’s plenty of booster shots. Wear a mask when you’re in public."

Biden said there are enough boosters shots for the whole nation. He said he anticipates the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will authorize 12 to 15-year-olds to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster later this week.

The president also said that there’s no reason to think that the omicron variant is any worse for children and advocated for schools remaining open.

"We know that our kids can be safe when in school," he continued. "That’s why I believe schools should stay open."

Biden also announced that he will double the purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 antiviral pill, bringing the total amount to 20 million. 

"These pills will be delivered in the coming months and have been shown to dramatically decrease hospitalization and death from COVID-19," the White House said in a tweet. 

The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for Pfizer's Paxlovid-nirmatrelvir tablets and ritonavir tablets last month – the first oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19. The Biden administration, in November, announced its commitment to secure 10 million treatment courses of Pfizer's Paxlovid oral antiviral drug, contingent on the FDA's EUA. The administration paid $5.295 billion for the first 10 million courses. 

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The Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s drug for adults and children ages 12 and older with a positive COVID-19 test and early symptoms who face the highest risk of hospitalization. That includes older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease, though the drug is not recommended for patients with severe kidney or liver problems. Children eligible for the drug must weigh at least 88 pounds (40 kilograms)

U.S. health regulators also authorized Merck’s COVID-19 pill, known as molnupiravir — the second medication approved for at-home use to battle the rapidly-spreading omicron variant. Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is collaborating with Merck on developing the drug. 

The pills from both Pfizer and Merck are expected to be effective against omicron because they don’t target the spike protein where most of the variant’s worrisome mutations reside.

Health experts agree that vaccination remains the best way to protect against COVID-19. But with roughly 40 million American adults still unvaccinated, effective drugs will be critical to blunting the current and future waves of infection.

More than 1 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Monday. According to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 1,082,549 cases were tallied, a "record high."

New cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have soared to their highest level on record at over 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious omicron variant. New cases per day have more than doubled over the past two weeks, eclipsing the old mark of 250,000, set in mid-January 2021, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running at around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January 2021, the CDC reported.

While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind cases, the hospital figures may reflect both the protection conferred by the vaccine and the possibility that omicron is not making people as sick as previous versions.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.