The top Senate Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee said Monday that more needs to be done to protect America from future pandemics and introduced a proposal aimed at preparing for the next health crisis.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said on the Senate floor Monday evening that he intends to make preparing for a future pandemic a key focus of the Senate until legislation is passed, arguing that action should be taken now before attention is diverted from the coronavirus.
"Even with an event as significant as COVID-19, memories fade, attention moves on quickly to the next crisis," Alexander said. "That makes it imperative that Congress act on needed changes this year in order to better prepare for the next pandemic, which might be in 20 years or might be next year or next month. The only thing we know for certain is that it will come."
Alexander's legislation would provide sustained federal funding for states to build up their stockpiles, allocate funds to allow for on-shore production of testing materials and future vaccines and allow the national strategic stockpile to work with companies to maintain supplies there and create plans to boost inventory if necessary.
The legislation comes after federal and state governments struggled to respond to the coronavirus crisis as it overwhelmed the country in March and April. In the early stages of the outbreak, multiple states struggled to access ventilators, testing equipment and other relevant supplies. Even now, some health care workers are reporting struggles to access protective equipment.
The bill would "make sure that federal and state stockpiles have sufficient protective equipment: mask, gowns and ventilators so that we don't run out during this pandemic or the next one," Alexander said.
It would give states funding each year in their effort to build up the supply.
The proposal also provides funding for U.S.-based vaccine and testing manufacturing facilities, aimed at addressing concerns that the country must rely on foreign manufacturers.
"Why don't we make sure that the next time that we have a pandemic that our manufacturing plants aren't in China or India we can do that with a very modest amount of funding," he said.
Alexander also proposed that his legislation be included in the upcoming coronavirus relief package, which is expected to be taken up by the Senate in the coming weeks. The proposal would cost $15 billion to implement and would be paid out to recipients over 10 years.
Alexander has argued that failures by Congress and the White House over the past 20 years caught the current administration flat-footed in its attempts to combat the coronavirus.
"While every president is going to manage a crisis differently based on the personnel they bring with them into government, it is Congress’ responsibility to provide a foundational structure that administration after administration can build on, instead of creating a new structure with each new emergency," Alexander wrote in a white paper last month. "The laws that Congress passed do not seem to have anticipated fully the scope of a pandemic such as COVID-19 and the need for a whole-of-government approach."
Democrats have also been critical of the administration's response to the virus in early months. In a report focusing on failures to implement adequate testing for the virus, led by the staff of Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health Education and Labor Committee, the finger was pointed at President Donald Trump.
"Had there been competent, consistent leadership from the federal government, the United States could have avoided critical delays and better addressed supply shortages, allowing testing capacity to expand more rapidly," the report read.
Alexander responded to Murray's criticism earlier this month, arguing that it was a congressional failure that led to the lack of preparedness.
"Blaming President Trump for a problem that four Presidents and several Congresses have tried to solve for twenty years does not make Americans safer," the statement reads. "Instead of pointing fingers, Democrats and Republicans should be working together."
Alexander's proposal comes following reports that the Trump administration is seeking to phase out funding for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health in a forthcoming GOP coronavirus relief package.
Earlier this year, it was reported that the administration's proposed budget also slashed funding for several federal efforts aimed at pandemic prevention and preparedness.
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