White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, shown speaking at the White House briefing room. (Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

As the country enters the fourth year of dealing with COVID-19, the federal government is offering its assistance on testing access, vaccines and guidance on antiviral treatments, according to White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, MPH.

“At this point, our job in the administration is to make sure we provide as much support as we can and that vaccines and treatments remain free,” Jha said Wednesday during a LeadingAge membership call. “We know it’s not enough.”

Jha said the administration is open to “all of the above” strategies to ensure that vulnerable populations, including long-term care residents, are protected from COVID-19. 

“It’s been a long, difficult, painful three years,” Jha said. “We’ve made so much progress, but the virus is still around and continuing to make people ill.”

The challenge, he said, is that the virus continues to evolve, meaning that immunity can wane and leave people susceptible to illness. The bivalent booster released in the fall, he said, was the first major upgrade to the COVID-19 vaccine and provides protection against serious illness. All older adults, as well as individuals with comorbidities, should receive the bivalent vaccine, Jha said.

Assisted living communities and nursing homes also can seek assistance from quality improvement organizations, or QIOs, which the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services tasked with improving bivalent booster update and access to therapeutics for long-term care residents, Jha said. QIOs are available to provide technical assistance to organize vaccine clinics, provide information and answer questions about vaccines and therapeutics, and identify and access supplies, he said.

“At this point, we want to ensure there are no barriers to vaccination,” Jha said.

Among other federal strategies to increase vaccination rates among long-term care residents and staff, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is creating COVID-19 vaccine sub-provider agreements to allow long-term care facilities not directly enrolled as providers in the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Program to access vaccine doses through pharmacy providers. 

The CDC also is working with long-term care facilities and partners to consider alternative vaccine providers — emergency medical technicians and others — to provide onsite vaccinations. In addition, the agency is working with state health officials to develop “strike team” efforts in long-term care facilities.

Last month, the White House released a COVID-19 Winter Preparedness Plan to help long-term care facilities manage the virus. The playbook focuses on three areas — improving bivalent booster update, increasing access to COvID-19 testing and treatments, and improving indoor air quality.

The plan called for expanding access to free COVID-19 testing options, including distributing rapid testing kits to long-term care facilities, community health centers, rural health clinics, schools and other locations.

Free at-home tests also will be distributed at more than 6,500 affordable housing properties operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A new federal Health Partner Order Portal launched recently to enable the bulk ordering of COVID-19 test kits for Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly providers. The almost half a million older adults living in Section 202 affordable senior housing communities — as well as staff members there — can access tests free of charge. 

Section 202 providers can register and order between 45,000 and 90,000 tests to be delivered weekly for residents, staff and community partners, according to Linda Couch, LeadingAge vice president of housing policy.

LeadingAge also set up a portal to allow provider across all care settings to apply for free COVID-19 test kits. The application is available to both members and nonmembers.

A handout, “Why Residents Should Get the Bivalent Booster,” designed to help long-term care staff members discuss the value of the bivalent booster with residents, was released late last month by the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living.