Federal health and science agency officials testified on the federal government’s ongoing needs to combat COVID-19 on June 16 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The testimony followed related HELP Committee hearings on the country’s COVID-19 response, most recently in January [refer to Washington Highlights, Jan. 14].
Committee members asked for updates on several issues including the availability of COVID-19 therapeutics, long COVID-19, vaccine confidence, the public health emergency declaration, and future preparedness.
In her opening statement, Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reiterated that the country is still combating COVID-19 and urged her colleagues to support additional emergency supplemental funding for the response efforts. “We cannot afford to get caught off guard by this virus again. … And what happens next isn’t a given either. It’s up to us to stay the course in our support and investments if we are 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 needs to be a top priority—for every single one of us,” she said.
Murray then asked Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, what the impacts would be to the agency without additional funds. Walensky highlighted several research studies that would end, including seroprevalence studies, long-term surveillance of long COVID-19 conditions, and mother-to-baby surveillance. She added that the CDC’s global vaccination efforts would also be halted without additional funds.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was one of 10 bipartisan senators who worked to devise a $10 billion proposal for supplemental funds in April [refer to Washington Highlights, April 8], shared his frustration about the administration’s continued request for supplemental funding after the administration was able to redistribute existing funding to cover the costs of COVID-19-related needs over the last several months. “For the administration to say they could not purchase these things and then, after several months, divert some funds, and then purchase them is unacceptable and makes our ability to work together and have confidence in what we're being told very much shaken to the core,” he said.
In his opening statement, Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) expressed frustration with the government’s management, messaging, and response to COVID-19. “We are still in crisis management and we’re two and half years into this. … What do we need to be doing today to ensure we are prepared for what we may face in the weeks and months to come?”
In later remarks, Burr asked agency officials about the plan to end the public health emergency (PHE), noting frustration over a lack of criteria to determine the end of the emergency. Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell reiterated the administration’s commitment to give 60 days’ notice before ending the PHE, indicating that it would again be extended beyond the current July 15 expiration. O’Connell noted the health care system flexibilities that exist only under the PHE, including extended Medicaid coverage and extended telehealth coverage under Medicare.
In her opening statement, Walensky noted that new infectious disease threats can emerge at any time. “Just this past month we've seen outbreaks of monkeypox in non-endemic countries including here in the United States. CDC's swift action has supported testing and case identification.” The AAMC recently worked with the CDC to develop a monkeypox resource guide with the latest information and resources to prepare for and treat monkeypox and a clinician checklist.
Walensky added that receipt of “timely, standardized, and uniform data” would be helpful in more quickly addressing emerging threats.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked about the mental health impacts of the pandemic and the CDC’s lessons learned. Walensky noted that the CDC has learned hard lessons about mental health impacts across age demographics. “We at CDC are doing a lot of work across the country with the VA, with NGOs, with community-based organizations within our tribes to strengthen mental health resources to decrease suicide, to allow children to get back to school, to allow parents and caregivers the mental health resources that they need so that they can combat the challenges of mental health right now,” she said.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) asked for an update on the CDC’s newly launched Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA) and its work to track global public health threats. Walensky shared that the CFA has proved significant “in understanding the importance of new variants [including] the Omicron variant … and in forecasting and understanding where we need to put our resources at the local level.” She added, “The disparities that we have in vaccination coverage around this world are likely to potentially lead to new variants. And if we don't control these new variants, they will likely reach our shores again.”
The AAMC joined an April 27 stakeholder letter urging House and Senate appropriators to provide $50 million for the CFA in fiscal year 2023. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which includes funding for the CDC, will mark up its FY 2023 draft spending bill on June 23.