Senators Debate Need for More $$ for the Fight Against COVID

Senators Debate Need for More $$ for the Fight Against COVID

June 16, 2022 0 By Jennifer Walker

WASHINGTON — Thursday’s Senate hearing updating progress on the COVID pandemic was either a well-reasoned explanation for why Congress should allocate more money for fighting COVID, or a setup to orchestrate additional funding even though it’s not clear how the money will be spent, depending on who is asked.

“The progress we have made so far was not guaranteed,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP), at the start of the hearing. “It was accomplished through congressional action and through robust investments. And what happens next is not a given either. It is up to us to stay the course in our support and investments if we’re going to protect our families and communities, from whatever this pandemic throws at us next. That’s why passing emergency funding to continue our response has to be a top priority for every single one of us.”

Questions About Spending

Not so fast, said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee’s ranking member. “I remind my colleagues we spent $1.9 billion just on COVID a year ago — where’s that money going? How’s it been spent? Where’s it obligated?” he said. “When is somebody going to share with the American people the destination we’re trying to get to and how we’re going to get to that destination?”

At the end of the hearing, Burr called it “the most well-orchestrated event that I’ve seen in the 28 years that I’ve been here … This was designed to [get] Republicans to open a checkbook, sign the checks, and let my administration fill in the balance with no detail on how, when, or if that would be an asset. I’ve never in 28 years seen an attempt to get an outcome without answering questions. I leave today extremely disappointed.”

Murray asked each witness at the hearing what would be lost if their agency didn’t obtain additional COVID funding. “We have numerous ongoing studies that will not be able to continue,” including “zero-prevalence” slated to end in December 2022, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH. In addition, “we’ll be unable to continue our long-term surveillance and that includes comprehensive monitoring of post-COVID conditions.”

“The most important thing that will happen is people will die or be hospitalized or experience long COVID for days to months to maybe a lifetime, unnecessarily, if they don’t have access to the latest vaccines and antivirals,” responded FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD. “One more component we haven’t talked about is the supply chains of all of this. I’ve learned a lot about the food supply chain in the last few months — and it’s not just infant formula. We have multiple areas of agricultural supply that are tenuous if workers get sick.”

Domestic Test Manufacturing at Risk

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said without more funding, “we’re going to be limited in our ability to maintain domestic manufacturing of tests … We’re also not going to be able to expand our domestic manufacturing of mRNA vaccines. In addition, the Strategic National Stockpile is not going to be able to purchase domestically manufactured surgical gowns as we anticipated being able to do and will struggle to be able to maintain the current PPE [personal protective equipment] levels.”

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the virus is constantly changing, “and we need to keep up with it. In order to do that, we’ve got to do better with new vaccine platforms, such as nanoparticle vaccines, and we cannot proceed with that unless we get additional funding,” adding that there are other projects that will need funding as well.

Other senators had different concerns. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked about preparations being made for the likely FDA authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use in younger children. Walensky said CDC officials will be meeting Friday and Saturday to get their own recommendations for the vaccines in order, so that distribution could go forward. O’Connell said that to prepare for the authorization, “we have made available 10 million [vaccine] doses for states to order, and the vast majority of them have placed those orders. That will allow us to ship out as soon as an EUA, should it come, comes, with the expectation that parents can begin getting their children vaccinated next week.”

Hassan also asked what was happening with the infant formula shortage, noting that the Abbott formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan — whose closure due to possible bacterial contamination had set off the problem — was now offline again due to being flooded. Califf said that supply was in good stead now that the other U.S. formula manufacturers have ramped up and are running their factories 24/7, “and that doesn’t count the [Operation] Fly Formula” supplies coming in from overseas.

Remote Work Arrangements Questioned

Several Republican senators seized on the issue of federal employees working remotely. “There’s a perception that your agencies are underperforming,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.) “If you’re underperforming and you’re not showing up, that is not good stewardship.” He asked about a policy he’d heard about that only required HHS employees to work in-person for 1 day out of every 2 weeks.

O’Connell said her division required more in-office time than that, while Califf said that his employees are working remotely as often as suited them and their supervisors, but workers such as lab technicians, who need to be there every day, are there every day.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed concern about the Biden administration’s “Test to Treat” program, in which people who suspect they have COVID can get tested for it at a pharmacy, and, if they test positive, be prescribed antivirals such as Paxlovid right away.

“Paxlovid interacts in a negative way with a lot of commonly taken medications, including blood thinners, for example,” she said. “And just on Tuesday, Pfizer announced it was halting enrollment in a trial for Paxlovid in standard-risk patients — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — after it seems that the treatment was not effective in reducing symptoms in that group.” She wondered if such a program “is really going to be the answer for standard-risk patients,” given those issues.

Califf agreed that “there does need to be an intermediary, either a pharmacist or a physician, who can look at the risks and the drug interactions and make a good judgment.” However, he added, many Americans might have trouble finding a physician and getting an appointment within 5 days — the time during which Paxlovid should be started — “so we have to have a system for that issue.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow