With experts warning that a new Covid-19 surge in the U.S. may be imminent as an Omicron subvariant spreads in Europe and Asia, congressional leaders are making little progress toward a deal to approve funding needed for the continuation of key pandemic response programs — including free vaccines and therapeutics for the uninsured.
Hampered by obstruction from Republican lawmakers who have questioned the need for any new coronavirus funding, Democratic leaders are scrambling to find a path forward for a roughly $16 billion aid package that was yanked from an omnibus spending measure last week.
The same omnibus spending bill provided $29 billion more for the Pentagon than President Joe Biden requested.
The Covid funding was removed after rank-and-file Democrats learned that the aid package was financed by repurposing previously approved pandemic money from states — a scheme, advocated by GOP lawmakers, that some feared would undermine local public health initiatives.
On Friday, the House is set to leave for recess without any coronavirus funding agreement in sight. The Department of Health and Human Services is completely out of coronavirus response money, and the White House is warning that “critical” testing, vaccine, and treatment efforts will be halted in the coming weeks without an infusion of funds.
“Without additional resources from Congress, the results are dire,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing last week. “Just to give you some specifics: In March, testing capacity would — will — decline… In April, free testing and treatments for tens of millions of Americans without health insurance will end. In May, America’s supply of monoclonal antibodies will run out.”
In a Twitter post on Thursday, the advocacy group Public Citizen called such a scenario “horrifying.”
“A program that pays to test, treat, and vaccinate uninsured people for Covid will end next month without funding,” the group wrote. “We’re running out of money to fight Covid, but critical aid is stalled in Congress. We can’t let this happen.”
“Without funding,” Public Citizen added, “we won’t have the resources to expand global vaccination that decreases risk of new variants, keeps cases low, and saves lives.”
We’ve only begun to see how lack of Congressional funding will impact COVID relief. https://t.co/Vl7jbNcqM6
— uché blackstock, md (@uche_blackstock) March 17, 2022
In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — said the U.S. could soon see an increase in coronavirus cases and noted that, without new funding from Congress, “a lot” of programs aimed at fighting the pandemic “are going to stop.”
“It really will be a very serious situation,” Fauci said. “It just is almost unconscionable.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, the incoming White House Covid-19 response coordinator, similarly cautioned Thursday that “we are very likely to see more surges of infections.”
“As much as I wish otherwise,” Jha wrote on Twitter, “the pandemic is not over.”
Overall, Covid-19 cases in the U.S. have been declining in recent weeks, though more than 1,200 Americans are still dying each day on average from the virus.
The rapid spread of the BA.2 subvariant, which is highly transmissible, is fueling concerns of another coronavirus wave in the U.S., particularly given that the country has been relaxing public health restrictions over the past several months.
“Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows BA.2… has been tripling in prevalence every two weeks,” ABC News reported Thursday. “As of the week ending March 11, BA.2 makes up 23.1% of all Covid cases in the U.S. compared to 7.1% of all cases the week ending Feb. 26, according to the CDC.”
The White House has requested more than $20 billion in funding to sustain pandemic response programs, but Republican and Democratic lawmakers last week could only agree to provide $15.6 billion in the omnibus package — and only after accepting the GOP push to take the money from states.
Now, Democratic leaders are attempting to move ahead with the coronavirus aid package as a standalone measure, an approach that appears doomed to fail given that 36 Senate Republicans have said they feel “it is not yet clear why additional funding is needed.” Psaki told reporters earlier this week that a number of Republicans aren’t returning the White House’s phone calls about the necessity of Covid-19 funding.
Dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard University epidemiologist, said Thursday that “to think we’re at a stage to stop appropriating funds and advocating for pandemic preparedness” is “one of the worst decisions that our government could make.”
In remarks to the press on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the Covid-19 funding: “We’re just going to have to pass it, and we’ll pass it when we have the votes to pass it.”
“In order to have bipartisan votes, we want it to be paid for, and that’s what we’re doing,” she added.
The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent argued in a column Thursday that Republicans won’t hesitate to lay blame for any new Covid-19 surge at the feet of Democrats, even as the GOP undermines efforts to secure new relief funding that would be used to prevent a wave of infections.
“Democrats have seemed generally skittish about really going hard at Republicans for their role in actively sabotaging our recovery from Covid,” the pair wrote. “Republicans, for their part, don’t seem all that worried about the politics of a new surge… They’ve trained their supporters to stop caring about the pandemic much at all, no matter how many people in their communities get sick and die.”
“Right now, only one party has any interest in fighting the pandemic,” Waldman and Sargent continued. “Democrats need to figure out how to rebut political attacks that make protecting public health harder, and how to make Republicans pay a political price for not caring about our national recovery at best and sabotaging it at worst.”