Senate Grills Health Agency Directors on Their Long-Term Pandemic Plans
WASHINGTON — Health experts told a Senate panel Thursday the drop in COVID-19 infections in the past few months should not lull them into complacency as the potentially deadly virus continues to mutate.
Without additional preparation, the nation’s health care system could be overwhelmed by a surge in infections during the upcoming fall and winter, they said.
“We need additional funding to do this work,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The public health emergency the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared in January 2020 freed up $1.9 trillion in federal government funding to try to control the pandemic. The emergency status is scheduled to expire July 15.
At the same time, new COVID-19 variants — called BA.4 and BA.5 — are emerging. Although milder than the original form of the disease, they are resistant to the latest vaccines and treatments.
It remains unknown whether future variants will remain mild or evolve to once again become deadly to a wide swath of the population. American deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 1 million just over a month ago.
“This will not be our last public health challenge,” Walensky told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The CDC is sending $3 billion to state agencies to recruit, hire and train more health care workers as the pandemic continues.
Walensky questioned whether it is enough when a better response is more and better vaccines, treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid and more masks or other personal protective equipment.
She cautioned that the U.S. campaign to send vaccines throughout the world was in jeopardy unless Congress continues it with more funding. Not only did the vaccines protect residents of other countries, it helped avoid importing more COVID-19 cases into the United States, she said.
“We know through this pandemic that no one is safe until everyone is safe,” Walensky said.
Last month, the CDC urged a return to indoor masking as COVID-19 infections rose steadily.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health’s disease expert, said research so far indicates it might be possible to develop a single vaccine for all COVID-19 variants, or what he called “pan-coronavirus vaccines.”
“The importance of developing the next generation of vaccines is paramount,” Fauci said.
He spoke remotely through videoconference while he recovers from COVID-19.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the committee, said, “We are already running out of resources to prepare for the fall and we are running out of time to prepare for it.”
She co-sponsored the PREVENT Pandemics Act that is pending in the Senate. Key parts of the bill would better coordinate the response to disease outbreaks among health agencies, strengthen the supply chain, add to government stockpiles of medical products, expand the detection system for diseases and update tests, treatments and vaccines as COVD-19 or other viruses mutate.
“It’s not a matter of if this pandemic will throw us another curve ball, it’s a matter of when,” Murray said.
Republicans, such as Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., did not dispute the need for preparation, only whether the federal health agencies were spending the tax money wisely.
The health experts who testified spoke about the need for emergency funding but did not offer a long-range plan to effectively manage the pandemic, he said.
“This was designed to make Republicans open a checkbook,” he said about the testimony.
He described their response with vaccines and treatments as too slow compared with Israel and other countries.
“We’re in a period where there needs to be accountability on how we spent the $1.9 trillion on COVID,” Burr said.