Three weeks ago, congressional Democrats dumped $15.6 billion in funding for COVID pandemic aid from the $1.5 trillion federal spending bill. When it happened, my knees wobbled. It is one thing to speak sunshine and roses about the current state of the crisis in an election year; it is quite another to close out funding to maintain the level of success we have achieved. If this were a ground war, it would be tantamount to sending the army home just as the enemy’s gates were coming into view.
Upon consideration, I could grudgingly see the logic of it… the Washington, D.C. logic, anyway. Congressional Republicans were prepared to fight to the death over “new spending,” and a tussle like that regarding COVID money, in what had already been an agonizingly protracted budget fight, could have doomed the entire bill. That would have ended humanitarian funding for Ukraine, a number of climate protections, funding for child care and public education, as well as money to keep the federal government open and funded through September.
Fine, I thought at the time, cut the funding, whatever. As soon as the ink is dry on this budget bill, however, you congressfolk better get yourselves back to the drawing board and get this COVID funding nailed down. We are not nearly out of the woods yet, new variants are on the march, and our defenses will wither away before yet another onslaught. This, I thought three weeks ago, was common sense, enlightened self-interest. I watched, and I waited.
Three weeks later, and nothing on that front has happened. This fight for our very lives has been marred from the beginning by deliberate delusion and rampaging ignorance on the part of both government and the public sector. This latest fiasco, after everything we have learned and endured, absolutely takes the cake.
Vivek Murthy is the U.S. surgeon general. David Kessler is the chief science officer for the U.S. COVID-19 Response Team. The pair teamed up to pen a plea in the pages of The New York Times:
The federal government is running out of funds to provide Americans, especially those who are uninsured, with Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Our efforts to sustain other critical elements of the public health response, from Covid-19 surveillance to the global vaccination campaign, are also now at risk. If the funding does not materialize, we will find ourselves in a far weaker position, struggling to keep up with a constantly evolving virus that will continue to threaten our health, our economy and our peace of mind.
Now, for the first time, we cannot order enough vaccines to provide boosters for all Americans if a fourth dose is deemed necessary in the fall. If we need variant-specific vaccines, we will not have the funds to secure them, deliver them or administer them. Last week, we were forced to cut our shipments of lifesaving monoclonal antibodies to states by 35 percent — and we anticipate running out of monoclonal antibodies later this spring. We will not be able to continue making home tests available, and the critical surveillance efforts that help us anticipate new waves and variants will be compromised.
A number of states, including Colorado and Minnesota, have begun scaling back or closing down COVID testing and vaccination sites. Test and vaccine manufacturers are cutting back on production. This is taking place just as the numbers of people getting vaccinated has all but fallen off the table. The FDA has announced authorization for at-risk people 50 and over to get a second booster shot, but is doing next to nothing to promote the booster’s availability or effectiveness.
“Some U.S. health care providers are informing uninsured people they can no longer be tested for the virus free of charge and will have to pay for the service,” reports the Times. “[A] fund established to reimburse doctors for care for uninsured Covid patients was no longer accepting claims for testing and treatment ‘due to lack of sufficient funds.’” As one front-line medical professional noted on Twitter, “The rationing of COVID-care by ability to pay begins.”
And hovering over all that, this: The B.A.2 subvariant is out there, growing stronger by the day as it spreads its influence throughout the population. After B.A.2 will almost certainly come another variant, and another, because this thing is not nearly over. In point of fact, it may never be completely over. Cutting that COVID funding from the budget with no intention of replacing it is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun.
Back to work, Congress. You giddily authorized $768 billion for spending on war; $15 billion to hold the line on COVID barely registers on the budgetary Richter Scale. Get this done, now.