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A man is tested for Covid-19

A healthcare worker talks to a person in line in their vehicle at United Memorial Medical Center Covid-19 testing site in Houston, Texas on June 25, 2020. (Photo by Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

As Covid Cases Surge in China and Europe, US Defunds Pandemic Response

"It is simply inexcusable that we may be right back where we were two years ago due to lack of funding for the basics: tests, vaccines, treatment, and data," said one public health expert.

Julia Conley

The White House announced Monday it will be scaling back public health measures to fight the Covid-19 virus despite surging infections rates elsewhere in the world and critics who say that it is much too premature to act as though the pandemic is over.

"If we've learned anything in this pandemic, it is that the trends in Europe precede our own."

After Republicans refused to support new Covid-19 funds in an omnibus spending bill last week, $22.5 billion for pandemic-related programs was stripped from the package, money the Biden administration says was needed to make sure uninsured Americans have access to vaccines, treatment, and testing.

Without funding, that program will end completely in early April, the White House said in a fact sheet it published about the consequences of congressional inaction regarding Covid-19 funding.

The fact that uninsured Americans are still in need of specific funding from Congress to ensure they can get Covid-19 and vaccines, said Jacob Silverman of The New Republic, is evidence that "the pandemic changed almost nothing about the politics of healthcare in this country."

The end of the Uninsured Program and other funding gaps, the administration said, will put the U.S. at risk of being "blindsided" by potential future waves of infections, which public health experts say could follow the outbreaks currently being reported in Asian and European countries.

Covid-19 cases in Europe are reportedly being driven by an Omicron subvariant known as BA.2. Hospitalizations increased by 17% in the U.K. in the first week of March, although the U.K. Health Security Agency has not seen evidence that contracting BA.2 carries a greater risk of hospitalization than the original Omicron variant.

Like the U.S., where Hawaii will soon become the last state to lift its mask mandate for public spaces, the U.K. has recently ended nearly all public health measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

"Without a doubt, opening up society and having people mingle indoors is clearly something that is a contributor, as well as overall waning immunity, which means we've really got to stay heads-up and keep our eye on the pattern here," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Tuesday.

BA.2 is also driving several outbreaks in China, where at least 28 of the country's 31 provinces have now reported cases. China's vaccines so far have proven less effective against the subvariant, according to the Washington Post, compared with mRNA vaccines that the country is still developing.

At The Guardian, Scripps Research Translational Institute director Eric Topol wrote Wednesday that U.S. congressional leaders and other officials appear to have embraced "Covid denialism" despite evidence that a new wave could have an impact on the country in the coming months.

Indications within the United States support the idea that new wave is already getting started. Wastewater surveillance is relatively sparse in the United States, but 15% of the 410 sites where it was conducted between 24 February to 10 March 2022 showed a greater than 1000% increase compared with the prior 15-day period. Also, the BA.2 variant is gaining steam in the United States and is now accounting for more than 30% of new cases.

[...]

As with the first five warnings from the U.K. and Europe, the United States did not take heed. Instead of proactively gearing up with non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, quality of masks, distancing, air filtration, ventilation, aggressive testing, etc.), it just reacted to the surges when they were manifest.

As Northwestern University epidemiologist Dr. Sadiya Khan told NBC News Tuesday, "If we've learned anything in this pandemic, it is that the trends in Europe precede our own."

"What we're asking for is a modest investment to not squander the gains we've made over the last year," Natalie Quillian, deputy coordinator for the White House Covid-19 response team, told NPR. "We need to remember the dark days and how quickly a variant can come."

According to the White House, the funding gap in last week's spending package is expected to lead to:

  • A 30% reduction in shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments to states, with the nation's supply running out as soon as May;
  • The administration's inability to buy more oral antiviral treatments like Paxlovid;
  • Scaled-back purchases of preventative treatments for immunocompromised people;
  • An inability to administer a fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccines to the general population, if one is needed;
  • An end to federal help for domestic manufacturers of at-home Covid-19 tests, causing diminished testing capacity;
  • Reduced research into future vaccines;
  • Reduced surveillance of new variants; and
  • Damage to U.S. efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world, making the emergence of new variants more likely.

"It is simply inexcusable that we may be right back where we were two years ago due to lack of funding for the basics: tests, vaccines, treatment, and data," said Brown University emergency physician and researcher Megan Ranney.

Although states and cities across the U.S. have lifted mask mandates and resumed large indoor gatherings, giving the appearance that the pandemic is under control, Ryan Cooper wrote at The American Prospect on Wednesday that the country could "use another major vaccine push."

Liberals in particular need to get their booster shots and vaccinate their children if they haven't done it yet. And Democrats in Congress need to do whatever it takes to restart the flow of funding for vaccines, tests, and other anti-pandemic measures, which they failed to pass last week in a truly criminal act of negligence.

"Anyone who got one or two doses of vaccine should get a booster immediately," Cooper added. "Anyone who has not vaccinated their kids should do it immediately, and school districts should add Covid shots to their list of mandatory vaccines. Rather than removing vaccine requirements for businesses, as Philadelphia and New York have done, they should be restored, and the definition of 'fully vaccinated' should be changed to mean three, not two, shots."

"Finally, Democrats simply must restart funding of vaccines and tests," he wrote. "It's the only way to blunt the next wave, and the one after that."

According to NPR, Democrats are hoping to pass a Covid-19 funding bill in the coming days—but with Republicans like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) claiming lawmakers must first make sure "that Covid dollars were spent in a responsible way," the Senate GOP is likely to obstruct the proposal's passage in the evenly-split chamber.


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