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What the White House needs to do on Paxlovid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When the White House announced how it would help Americans move into the next phase of the pandemic, the antiviral pill Paxlovid was a big part of the plan. Now, nearly two months later, prescriptions are lagging. Many Americans don't even realize it's an option. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

CHAS ROADES: Chas Roades.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Roades is CEO of Gist Healthcare. I called him not because of his health care expertise but because last week he came down with COVID.

ROADES: I had fever and body aches and a cough and congestion. And it was - it sort of hit me like a Mack truck.

KEITH: He tested positive on a home test.

ROADES: And, you know, within 10 minutes was on the phone to my doc, you know, because I know about the Paxlovid. I want to get the drug, right?

KEITH: Paxlovid is a treatment, pills that have to be started within the first five days of COVID infection. And it has proven incredibly effective at keeping people out of the hospital. But when Roades asked about it, he was told it was scarce and he didn't qualify, neither of which are true. So he pushed and ultimately got the prescription. But it wasn't easy.

ROADES: If I was just somebody who, you know, didn't know anything about health care or didn't have access to information or, you know, wasn't a self-advocate, I probably would not have ended up on the drug.

KEITH: Paxlovid is a central part of President Biden's strategy for helping Americans live with COVID. The U.S. government has purchased 20 million doses of Paxlovid from Pfizer and worked with the company to accelerate delivery of the pills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now, thanks to the foundation we've laid, America has the tools to protect people, all people.

KEITH: But uptake has been underwhelming, and pills are piling up on the shelves. Dr. Jerome Adams, who was U.S. surgeon general during the Trump administration, is raising alarms because he doesn't think the people who need it most know about Paxlovid and other treatments or how to get them - people of color, people living in rural areas, people who may not be vaccinated.

JEROME ADAMS: The people who know about it are the people who know how to advocate for themselves. And so we're seeing inequities actually expand.

KEITH: It's one thing to say the tools are available, Adams argues. It's another to actually get those tools into people's hands.

ADAMS: One thing we need to do is have a massive patient education campaign.

KEITH: And the whole process just needs to be easier, says Dr. Zeke Emanuel at the University of Pennsylvania.

ZEKE EMANUEL: It's a bit of a rigmarole.

KEITH: He says many doctors don't feel comfortable prescribing it, and it can be hard to find a pharmacy that carries it. The White House is aware of the issues. A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a planned announcement tells NPR the White House will outline new actions this week, including direct outreach to physicians and patients and a plan to get the pills into more pharmacies. Speaking on Morning Edition today, the new White House COVID coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, acknowledged there are problems.

ASHISH JHA: We've got to turn those pills into, you know, prescriptions and into things that patients can get so they can get better.

ANDY SLAVITT: Having an amazing treatment sit on the shelves is not what anybody wants.

KEITH: Andy Slavitt was a senior White House COVID adviser at the start of the Biden administration.

SLAVITT: Our attention span is only so long, and so you have to repeat these messages over and over and over and over again. And they need to come not just from national sources like the White House, but they need to come from a lot of local sources, like your own physician, like your hospital, like your church.

KEITH: That's something the White House put huge effort into a year ago in the drive to get people vaccinated. But thus far, the same massive campaign hasn't been developed around getting the word out about life-saving treatments.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.