Another wave of COVID-19 infections has hit Washington, with congressional leaders and cabinet members among the many people testing positive in recent days. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Attorney General Merrick Garland are just a few officials on this growing list.
This is a reminder that COVID-19 is still with us. It is also a reminder of the unequal impacts of this disease, and the need for Congress to act quickly to finalize a bipartisan $10 billion COVID funding deal.
Hopefully everyone will have speedy and full recoveries, bolstered by the protection offered by vaccines. And there can be little doubt that these government officials will have access to critical resources — like testing, treatment and the ability to take time away from work or work remotely — that all Americans need when confronted with a possible infection or a positive COVID-19 result.
Unfortunately, this access is not a sure thing for everyday Americans. We have seen repeatedly throughout the pandemic how uneven resources and economic recovery have been across the population. A 2021 study from Stanford researchers, for example, found that U.S. counties with higher income inequality frequently had higher numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
With funds drying up for a federal program that has been reimbursing costs for COVID testing and treatment for uninsured people, Congress must once again decide to invest in the health of the people they represent.
Learning to live with the virus doesn’t mean policymakers stop trying to prevent more people from dying with it. People need continued access to the resources that can help minimize the spread of the virus and minimize its impact when people do get sick. And people need to realize that millions of their fellow Americans have underlying health conditions and remain at greater risk for serious illness.
“We’re going to have some infections here and there, but it’s not going to shut down the country,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington, told the Associated Press last week. “Life has to go on. We have to be vaccinated and boosted. We need to protect the vulnerable, but we have to get used to it.”
Throughout much of the pandemic, we’ve seen the rich get used to it and the poor struggle with it — either with worse health outcomes or more work challenges. This inequality certainly didn’t just appear all of a sudden with the pandemic, but the pandemic has undoubtedly compounded it. Congress must recognize and help address this, and that means continuing to invest collectively in the vaccines, treatments, testing and other resources that can help blunt the impacts of COVID-19.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah helped negotiate the $10 billion deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. This deal repurposes existing COVID funding and directs it to resources like vaccines, treatments and testing, and is less than half what President Joe Biden’s administration has asked for. Unfortunately, it has been caught up in a disagreement about potential amendments, with Republicans preventing the deal from moving forward without a chance to block the White House from ending a COVID-19 immigration policy that has been used to quickly expel migrants on public health grounds. Several congressional Democrats, including Maine 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden, have also expressed concern about the timing of this announced move by the Biden administration.
This impasse needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. The current COVID situation, including relaxed restrictions and recommendations along with persistent infections, is confusing enough without additional uncertainty from Congress.
“It’s harder now than it was before to know what’s happening. The future is a little fuzzier because we don’t have as much information at our fingertips,” Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the AP about current testing efforts. “If you’re not an actor in a Broadway play or a politician you might fall through the testing cracks.”
Sadly, that is true for much more than testing. Congress must act to shore up those cracks for all of the Americans who aren’t Broadway stars or Beltway officials.