June 23, 2020

Warren Questions Why Senate HELP Committee is Preparing for the "Next Pandemic" When America is Still Unprepared for the Current COVID-19 Crisis

"The next pandemic? What about the pandemic that's going on right now? You know, the last time I checked the U.S. was still fighting coronavirus - and losing"; "We must expand contact tracing. We must secure our supply chain. We must protect communities of color. And we must stop pretending that this pandemic is over"

Video of exchange (YouTube)

Washington, DC - During the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on "lessons learned for the next pandemic," United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned why the Committee isn't holding a hearing about applying these lessons learned to the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

COVID-19 cases have topped 2.3 million, over 120,000 Americans are dead already, and hundreds are dying every day. But there are still no systemic fixes to ensure states with rising caseloads have all the medical supplies they need, and Congress has still not developed a national contact tracing program. Senator Warren and Representative Andy Levin (D-Mich.) have introduced legislation for a national contact tracing program that will massively expand our health care workforce to trace and prevent COVID-19, make sure states and localities have the support they need, and provide robust privacy protections to ensure Americans' personal data and health information is protected. 

Senator Warren also stressed that if the federal government fails to right the wrongs of its early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color and other vulnerable communities will continue to be disproportionately at risk for coronavirus infection. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020
U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Video (YouTube)

Elizabeth Warren: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Now, I have to be honest. I am puzzled by the topic of today's hearing which asks us to start preparing for "the next pandemic." The next pandemic? What about the pandemic that's going on right now? You know, the last time I checked, the U.S. was still fighting coronavirus and losing. Cases are rising rapidly. Over 20 states and hundreds of people are dying every single day. In Massachusetts, we learned first-hand just what happens when the federal government isn't prepared for a pandemic. Back in March, we asked the federal government for medical supplies. Weeks later, only a fraction of those supplies had arrived and the federal government was reportedly seizing shipments that were headed our way. Now, even as the cases have come down, supply chain problems persist. Doctors in Milton are using construction goggles as PPE, and Massachusetts General Hospital told the Boston Globe that its supply chain was "fragile." If we don't apply the hard lessons learned in Massachusetts, states like Florida and Texas and Arizona, where cases are now rising, are going to pay the price. 

So, Dr. Khaldun, Michigan has also experienced some of these supply chain problems. Since March, the federal government has implemented systemic ways to try to ensure that states with rising COVID caseloads will have all the masks and gowns and testing kits and other supplies that they need. Is that right? Is that what's actually happened in Michigan?

Dr. Khaldun: You know, I'm grateful, and thank you Senator for that question. I'm grateful for the support of my colleagues at HHS and FEMA. They have been regularly sending us supplies. But quite frankly, they have not been enough. Some of the supplies we've received have been expired. And so, we still are working aggressively to try to make sure we have enough PPE for now and the potential second wave that we will probably see in Michigan come the fall. 

Senator Warren: Yeah. You know, it sounds like the very clear supply-chain lessons that were learned by the states that were hit hard early on are just simply not being applied, even though we're now more than three months into fighting this virus. So, here's another one to focus on. As Massachusetts fought to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it developed a robust contact tracing program that is now the model for the nation. Experts agree that contact tracing is essential to successfully contain coronavirus. So, Dr. Khaldun, Michigan has also invested in contact tracing and tracking information, and 500 Michiganders, as I understand it, are already working on tracking these infections. But the state could use more support. So let me just ask you, do you need more resources for this work and do you think that we should have a nation-wide contract tracing program to help states that are dealing with COVID-19 cases?

Dr. Khaldun: Absolutely, Senator. So, yes. Absolutely. I think we should have a federal strategy for contract tracing. We have over 10,000 Michiganders who've volunteered to do this contact tracing. More than 500 of them are already deployed. And we have additional paid staff throughout the state. But it has been a hodge-podge of local, state, and federal government trying to support this. So, more support would have actually be welcomed from the federal level. 

Senator Warren: Well, it's important for all of us to hear your voice on this. I appreciate it, Dr. Khaldun. You know, we are nowhere close to a national contact tracing program. The House has passed key provisions of the contact tracing legislation that I introduced with Congressman Levin from Michigan, but Republicans in the Senate have refused to provide states with the funds they need to trace coronavirus infections. So let's have one more turn of this. Let's talk about who's going to be hit the hardest if we don't learn the lessons of the past few months. In Massachusetts, we already know: data shows that Black and Hispanic people in the Commonwealth are three times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19. So, Dr. Khaldun, if the federal government fails to right the wrongs of its early response to COVID-19, how will its failure impact people of color and other vulnerable communities that are at risk for the coronavirus infection? 

Dr. Khaldun: So, I think if we don't aggressively address those social determinants of health, so, adequate housing, making sure people have access to health care, no out of pocket costs for testing, absolutely. African American communities, Latino communities, our tribal communities are going to the ones that are hit the hardest so it's something that is very concerning to me. 

Senator Warren: Well, thank you very much Dr. Khaldun. And thank you for your work. You know, there's gonna be a time and place to take the lessons from this pandemic and apply them to the next one. 

But right now, as COVID-19 cases top 2.3 million nationwide, our country can't look at the coronavirus pandemic as if it is an event from the past. 120,000 Americans are already dead, and more are dying every day. 

We must expand contact tracing. We must secure our supply chain. We must protect communities of color. And we must stop pretending that this pandemic is over. 

Thank you Mr. Chairman.