Mar 26, 2022 - Health

The U.S. powers down its COVID defenses

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With America in a pandemic lull, communities across the country are choosing to shut down COVID testing and vaccination sites, even as experts warn that another wave could be on the horizon.

Why it matters: The Omicron surge showed how our defenses can be quickly overwhelmed, but many places are scaling back anyway.

  • These latest shifts are often taking place in more solidly Democratic areas that have prided themselves on their pandemic response so far.

Driving the news: Colorado announced last week its intention to close 14 state-run testing and vaccination sites by the end of the month, and it ended a program to ship at-home rapid tests to residents.

  • That means definitive PCR tests and vaccines in the state — including boosters — will more often need to come from battle-weary health care providers moving forward.
  • New strategies are needed because vaccine demand is plummeting, ​​Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson Kristen Stewart told Axios.

Minnesota is similarly preparing to shift into an "endemic" phase of pandemic management by finalizing plans to close community testing and vaccination sites.

  • Gov. Tim Walz told Axios the state will do so "with the ability to pop them out almost immediately should we need them again."
  • "What happens if we have to come back here in April, May or August whenever the next surge comes?" he added. "How do we properly scale back up?"

Austin, Texas, has closed at least three testing sites run by Austin Public Health since mid-February "to meet the evolving needs of our communities and in response to declining testing demand."

  • At Omicron's peak, APH teams administered more than 5,500 tests in just three days, but by mid-February, the weekly figure dropped to just 410.
  • "Moving away from mass testing and vaccination sites allows APH to return to its core mission — serving as a safety net provider," APH officials wrote in an email to Axios.

The big picture: There might not be relief from the federal government if another surge comes, as the Biden administration sounded the alarm that it doesn't have the funding to secure fourth vaccine doses for many Americans should they become necessary, the Washington Post reports.

  • Plus, falling demand is causing testing manufacturers to cut back production — just like last year, per Politico.

Worth noting: The country should have significant built-in immunity to the more-transmissible Omicron subvariant driving concerns of another wave, thanks to the past winter's sky-high caseloads.

  • "[H]opefully, when we do — and I think it will be that we do — see an uptick [in cases], hopefully, it won't be accompanied by an increase in hospitalizations," Anthony Fauci told the Post this week.

What they're saying: Last week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said during a press conference that the pandemic is entering "the next phase of individual responsibility, preparedness and prosperity" as the state announced it would move "from crisis response to disease management."

  • "[I]n most instances individual decision-making and risk assessment is the appropriate path forward," read a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services document on the plan.

The bottom line: As Americans start returning to normal life en masse, officials across the country are once again similarly shifting policy — and hoping it sticks this time.

Axios' John Frank, Katie Peralta Soloff, Asher Price and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

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