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Best Prepared in the World

March 10, 2020
Weekly Columns

Over the last several weeks, there have been numerous developments related to the coronavirus, including an uptick in confirmed U.S. cases and unsettling swings in the stock market. As we navigate each day, it’s important to remember that we are still in the early stages of combating a mysterious virus that we didn’t even know existed until earlier this year. Despite the unknowns, we should all rest a little easier knowing that our country’s preparation has been years in the making, and – from day one – our readiness tools have been deployed swiftly and decisively well to protect American lives.

Thankfully, long before COVID-19, Congress was already preparing for this sort of public health emergency. In fact, five years ago under Republican leadership, Congress began shaping policies and prioritizing investment in our readiness, including generously boosting funding year after year for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Strategic National Stockpile of medications and other medical supplies. It is also worth noting that last year Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act, which establishes and authorizes funding for programs and entities to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.

But perhaps our greatest lifeline these past several weeks was the prior establishment of and investment in the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund, which had more than $100 million immediately available for our public health defenders to respond. As the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that includes the NIH and CDC, I proposed and advocated for the start of this emergency fund so that our public health defenders could draw funds immediately to protect American lives – not having to wait on Congress to provide supplemental emergency funds. And that's exactly what our public health defenders were able to do during the first critical weeks.

Indeed, because Republicans ensured Congress had the tools in place ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, the Trump Administration has been able to direct a swift and decisive response. Moreover, President Trump made the wise decision early on to order travel restrictions and quarantines, which effectively bought our country some extra time. Other steps taken to ensure an effective and strategic response has included the formation of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force at the end of January and the recent appointment of Vice President Mike Pence to lead and oversee the federal government’s multi-agency response to the coronavirus. And every step of the way, the Administration has kept Congress informed on what is known about the virus and what steps are underway through briefings and regular updates. 

Americans should take even more comfort knowing that, compared to every other nation in the world, the United States is recognized as the best prepared to face a public health challenge. According to the recent rankings in the 2019 Global Health Security Index study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. was designated as number one in the “comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across the 195 countries.” Undoubtedly, this top rank is the result of Congress investing in the tools we’d need well before the coronavirus.

While there is still a long road ahead with many unknowns, I am encouraged that one of those unknowns is not whether the funding will be there for our public health defenders to continue their response. Just last week, Congress passed an emergency funding measure, generously providing for the nation’s ongoing preparation for, prevention of and response to the coronavirus. Along with replenishing the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund, the supplemental directed resources to expand the availability of tests, to support state and local response efforts and to research and develop vaccines and therapeutics. It’s worth noting that this included $40 million specifically for tribal nations and their health care organizations to deal with the challenges ahead. And of particular importance to rural communities, I was pleased that the package included telehealth language that ensures patients can get the care they need at home.

Though the situation is still likely to get worse before it gets better, there are practical precautions we all can and should take to slow and contain the spread of the coronavirus. Just as you would protect yourself against the seasonal flu or respiratory illness, it’s important to remain vigilant in washing your hands a lot, covering your mouth when you cough and staying home when you're sick. For more guidance and the latest updates on staying healthy, I encourage you to regularly check the CDC’s website: coronavirus.gov

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