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Senate Eyes Action to Prepare for Future Virus Outbreaks (1)

June 9, 2020, 4:02 PMUpdated: June 9, 2020, 8:35 PM

The chairman of a Senate health committee wants Congress to bolster domestic production of vaccines, commit funds to federal health research, and improve the country’s disease surveillance system, a vision he laid out in a paper released Tuesday.

Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is aiming to prepare for the next possible outbreak of a deadly virus, using what lawmakers have learned from the spread of the coronavirus to beef up public health in the U.S.

“In this internet age attention spans are short. Even with an event as significant as COVID-19, memories fade and attention moves quickly to the next crisis,” Alexander said in a statement. “That makes it imperative that Congress act on needed changes this year in order to better prepare for the next pandemic.”

Congressional leaders are already considering some of his ideas, such as how to create a disease-tracking workforce in state public health agencies.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)
Photographer: Jim Watson/Getty Images

Alexander’s paper is a jumping off point for a package of legislation the HELP committee will be developing with the goal of passage later this year, a spokesman for the senator said. Alexander is retiring at the end of this Congress.

Responding to Current Emergency

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the HELP Committee, said in a statement Tuesday she’s supportive of Alexander’s goal but not at the expense of addressing problems stemming from the spread of Covid-19, such as the growth in the unemployment rate, shortages of medical supplies to health care works, and funding contact tracing and Covid-19 testing efforts.

“I’ve said before that we’ve got to learn from this crisis and make sure this never happens again—but I also want to be clear that looking forward to the next crisis cannot substitute for fully responding to the crisis at hand,” she said.

Senate Democrats, including Murray, are also interested in taking steps not covered in Alexander’s report, such as increasing funding for a wide range of health programs, fighting misinformation and, addressing health disparities, according to two Senate Democratic aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Decades of cuts in public health funding have undermined the nation’s public health infrastructure, leaving health departments without the tools and the people they needed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, public health advocates have said.

Preparing for a future virus outbreak, experts say, requires a consistent flow of money to health programs.

Alexander is both chairman of the Senate HELP Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriation’s panel responsible for funding federal health agencie

(Adds response from Sen. Patty Murray starting in sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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