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Rapid at-home Covid-19 test kits are distributed in Chelsea, Massachusetts on December 17, 2021. (Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

The Expendable Americans in a Pandemic

Every day, more than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID.

Steven Harper

On March 14, 2022, seven million Americans and their families became victims again. I'm one of them.

For the first time since the COVID pandemic began, Republicans jettisoned Congress's bipartisan approach of providing "no strings" emergency funds to battle the virus. Instead, the GOP insisted that Democrats find a way to pay for ongoing COVID testing, treatment, and vaccines. Otherwise, Republicans would scuttle the $1.5 trillion omnibus bill funding the entire federal government through September. The bill also included a $42 billion increase in military spending and almost $14 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine.

According to a study published in the JAMA Network on Dec. 28, 2021, the vulnerable population is at increased risk of "breakthrough COVID-19 infection that can have severe and even fatal outcomes."

The COVID funds were a rounding error—a $15.6 billion item, or 1 percent of the omnibus bill.

To assuage Republicans, Democrats pulled $7 billion from state aid allocated in a previous relief package. But pushback from governors and some House Democrats caused Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remove COVID funding from the bill altogether.

The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune (R-SD), tried to blame Democrats. "We had a chance to get that last week, and the House progressive wing blew it up," he said, adding, "They torpedoed it."

Given the GOP's new demand that Democrats find a way to pay for this round of the COVID plan, that's nonsense.

For immunocompromised citizens like me, vaccination offers some protection. But the science is clear: According to a study published in the JAMA Network on Dec. 28, 2021, the vulnerable population is at increased risk of "breakthrough COVID-19 infection that can have severe and even fatal outcomes." Individuals 65 and over account for 75 percent of all deaths, even though we have the highest COVID vaccination rates. Likewise, across all age ranges, more than seven million American adults live with compromised immune systems that impede vaccine effectiveness. In a recent study, vaccinated immunosuppressed patients accounted for 44 percent of breakthrough hospitalizations. And an even greater percentage—98 percent—were over 50, which makes me a double-dipper in the COVID pool.

This means that for many of the immunocompromised, treatments are the only way back to a life resembling "normal." But they are in short supply and, without additional federal funding, will become ever scarcer.

In his State of the Union message, President Biden said, "We're leaving no one behind or ignoring anyone's needs as we move forward." He then outlined his plan for stockpiles of tests, masks, and pills "if Congress provides the funds we need."

Well, Congress dropped that ball. But the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) share some of the blame for my current plight. As of last summer, COVID had killed 580,000 Americans, but President Biden said the worst was over. The CDC announced that anyone vaccinated didn't need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors.

When Delta arrived, infections and hospitalizations soared, but most people remained in an "I've moved on—I'm so done with COVID" state of denial. As Omicron engulfed the world and swamped hospitals yet again, that mindset persisted.

America paid the price for its denialism. By January 2022, the country was approaching one million COVID deaths, and the CDC told everyone to wear N95 masks for the best protection against Omicron. A month later, the CDC revised its metrics to focus on hospital admissions rather than infections. Using the new criteria, most of the country went from "high" community transmission levels to "medium" or "low" levels overnight and, suddenly, 70 percent of Americans could remove their masks.

But every day, more than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID.

Now rising infection and hospitalization rates in Europe provide troubling signs that another wave may be on the way. As Dr. Eric Topol recently wrote, "That, in itself, requires preparedness. Unfortunately, we have a mindset that the pandemic is over, which couldn't be further than the truth…"

I now have a new perspective on how handicapped individuals must have felt before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. My COVID fate remains in the hands of people motivated to look the other way. We've become an unwanted footnote in discussions about transitioning the country from pandemic—which is where we still are—to so-called "endemic"—a goal for which we have no real plan. Lip-service about "leaving no one behind" has yielded to social Darwinism making seven million people like me expendable.

The country shouldn't come to a screeching halt because some of us have compromised immune systems that make COVID especially dangerous. But presenting that as the only alternative to "moving on"—the message that people embrace because they want to hear it—is disingenuous.

Rather than promoting magical thinking, tell Americans the truth: Just because you haven't contracted severe COVID doesn't mean that the pandemic is over. Just because you don't have symptoms doesn't mean that you can't transmit the virus to someone who will develop serious complications with tragic consequences.

Rather than sowing doubt about scientific facts, provide funds for testing, treatment, and vaccines—all of which are now in imminent jeopardy. Adopting those public health measures should be characterized as bipartisan victories. They will not only better protect the most vulnerable now, but also help everyone defeat future lethal variants. Helping us—the immunocompromised—helps everyone.

There's even biblical precedent for doing the right thing:

"Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25: 40)

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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