President Biden’s COVID-19 response has been a mixed bag in his first year. While vaccines went into millions and millions of arms, the administration’s communications around them were inconsistent and its lack of testing resources during the winter Omicron surge made a bad situation worse.
And just this week Congress removed a proposed $15.6 billion COVID-19 funding package from the government’s spending bill, leaving Biden’s latest pandemic plan in flux.
Faced with Republican opposition over new COVID-19 spending, Democrats pulled the emergency aid package – which was already less than the $22.5 billion originally proposed – from the broader $1.5 trillion spending bill. The move came as the Biden administration warned that the nation’s stock of COVID-19 monoclonal antibody drugs has run low and that its testing and vaccine capacities are underfunded.
“This is an urgent request,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a press conference last week, ultimately to no avail.
Republicans in Congress requested that the COVID-19 funds be offset, which led to Democrats pulling the package entirely. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that Congress may still pass COVID-19 funding in a standalone bill, but its future is unclear.
In the wake of it all, public health experts voiced growing concern that the U.S. is starting to refer to the pandemic in the past tense, even as future threats like new variants and surges remain a possibility.
“Now that cases are going down, masks are coming off and it’s very clear the public is ready to move on, this is really the time to plan for whatever the next iteration of COVID-19 might look like as well as plan for future pandemics,” said Rachel Nuzum, VP of federal and state health policy at the Commonwealth Fund. “We don’t want to be planning for future pandemics in the middle of a crisis.”
Nuzum said the funding shortfall is a signal of a larger problem: a lack of consistent public health funding in the U.S. Since the outset of the pandemic, Congress has funneled $370 billion into pandemic relief, including funds to healthcare providers and for testing and vaccines. But all of that money has been spent – and without additional support, the U.S. runs the risk of leaving itself exposed to future pandemic threats.
“Public health funding in the U.S. has been characterized by this feast-or-famine cycle,” Nuzum explained. “The federal government responded to the COVID-19 crisis by providing unprecedented amounts of money to state and local jurisdictions, which was a very extreme blip on the public health funding cycle. But then the money started to retract.”
Nuzum characterized the nation’s data capabilities, testing infrastructure and public health workforce as desperately in need of further investment and stable funding moving forward.
“We have an opportunity to think about how these resources can serve as an investment that reflects the lessons learned from COVID-19, but also go far beyond COVID-19,” Nuzum said.
She added that there are still tremendous disparities between communities that are fully vaccinated and those that aren’t, noting that “this idea of moving on and putting this behind us doesn’t take those communities into account. It doesn’t reflect that we haven’t quite gotten to the place we want to be in terms of vaccination goals.”
As the volume of COVID-19 cases has decreased in the U.S., most cities and states have loosened mask mandates and other restrictions. In new guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, based on certain metrics, masks would not be needed for the majority of the U.S. population.
Still, President Biden recently released a new pandemic plan that focused on four main goals: Protecting against and treating COVID-19, preparing for new variants, preventing economic shutdowns and maintaining the pace of vaccinations. The $15.6 billion dropped from the spending bill was to be dedicated in large part to procuring a stable supply of monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19.
For now, it’s unclear if more COVID-19 funding will be secured, not to mention whether Democrats will find a way to pass a standalone package. But Nuzum stressed that the conversation over public health funding should continue, and urgently.
“What we know for sure is that funding our public health system only in a crisis is a really short-sighted way of doing it,” she said. “It’s like buying bottles of water to fill up fire hydrants: If you’re doing that when the fire’s already burning, you’re so far behind the threat that it’s really difficult to get a handle on it.”