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Talk of Covid’s End Sparks Fight Over Funding, Emergency Powers

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:30 AM

The latest phase of the Covid pandemic is shaping up to be the hardest for the Biden administration as the White House faces uphill battles getting new funds and public interest for its booster campaign.

President Joe Biden recently undercut his own message that more funds are needed to buy more Covid tests and vaccines to prepare for a possible fall or winter surge of the virus, Republicans and public health experts say. Biden said over the weekend that the pandemic is “over,” but noted there is still work to be done.

Biden’s remark came as the administration is ramping up efforts to persuade more Americans to get the updated version of the Covid-19 vaccine and is seeking new funds to buy more antivirals, testing, and doses of the vaccine.

New variant-specific immunization is a key step in addressing the pandemic, public health experts say. The president’s statement could hamper the effort for those reluctant to get jabbed or weary of pandemic policy.

“Many more people are going to hear the message that the pandemic is over, than the message that they should get a booster,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Even among people who got their primary vaccination series, booster uptake has been quite low.”

Sylvester Fisher gets a Covid booster vaccine from pharmacist Patricia Pernal at the Southwest Senior Center in Chicago on Sept. 9, 2022. The recently authorized booster shot protects against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the more recent omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are pushing the administration to give up the emergency powers it’s relied upon for almost two years to battle Covid. Officials signaled they’re not ready to give them up—and potentially halt billions of dollars in federal aid to states—while Republican lawmakers say it’s time to relinquish them.

“You got this conflict of Covid being over, but they want to keep all the emergency powers,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.

Debate Over Funding

Democrats say the federal pandemic response is shifting, not ending.

There were 14,163 new Covid cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 18, the day Biden’s comment aired in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” The country is averaging about 360 Covid-related deaths per week, a massive drop from the more than 2,000 Covid-related weekly deaths occurring during the first two months of 2022.

“It would not be consistent with reality if President Biden was out there suggesting what we’re living through today is the same thing as what we were living through two years ago,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters.

Murphy said more funds are needed for updated Covid boosters and other federal pandemic response measures even as the pandemic takes fewer lives.

“We are where we are on Covid because of the investments we’ve made on everything from testing to vaccines,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “We cannot let up.”

The administration is struggling to persuade at least 10 Senate Republicans to agree to add $22.4 billion in pandemic response money to a stopgap measure to keep the government running past Sept. 30. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a key negotiator, said the added funding “is not going to happen.”

“The chances of additional Covid funding were slim to begin with, and the president’s comments make them even slimmer,” Levitt said. “It’s hard to argue that funding is urgent when there’s a sense that the pandemic is over.”

Government funding may make a difference in who gets access to vaccines and treatment, policy watchers say.

“We do not have a health-care system that is equitable,” said Wendy Parmet, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Law. When it comes to a vaccine or other Covid-related product, “if the government isn’t going to be the payer of last resort and ensure the supply, then people without means are not going to get it,” she said.

The administration previously has discussed the need to leave Covid testing, vaccines, and treatments to the private sector.

This approach “poses a number of risks,” Levitt said. “Insurers will be facing higher costs, and they’re going to pass that along in higher premiums. People that are uninsured are going have trouble accessing vaccines, testing and treatments.”

Ending the Emergency

Republicans say they want Biden to outline when he’ll wind down the public health emergency.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sent a letter to Biden Monday asking for a plan to end the emergency. He noted that federal vaccine mandates, as well as billions of dollars of state Medicaid funds, are tied to the emergency.

“Without a clear plan to wind down pandemic-era policies, the deficit will continue to balloon and the effectiveness of public health measures will wane as the American people continue to be confused by mixed messages and distrust of federal officials,” he wrote.

The public health emergency declared over Covid is scheduled to end Oct. 13, but a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said the Biden administration would give at least 60 days notice if it were planning to allow it to expire. That would mean the HHS plans to extend the emergency beyond Oct. 13.

Public health experts say it shouldn’t be a political decision to declare the end of the pandemic and the emergency.

“He’s not qualified, no politician is qualified to declare the pandemic over,” Lawrence Gostin, faculty director for Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, said of Biden. “The word ‘pandemic’ is a scientific term.”

Gostin is currently working with the World Health Organization on pandemic efforts.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Ian Lopez in Washington at ilopez@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com