Federal officials provide update on COVID-19 to Senate HELP committee

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Federal Health and Science Agency officials provided updates on the federal government’s COVID-19 response on July 20 to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ( HELP). Testimony follows related May 11 HELP Committee hearing on COVID-19 response [refer to Washington Highlights, May 14].

Committee members asked for comments on several issues, including vaccination rates, booster shots and breakthrough cases, culturally appropriate outreach, viral variants, supply chains and stocks, public health infrastructure. and related public health issues.

In their prepared remarks, committee chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) And ranking member Richard Burr (RN.C.) noted their continued work on a bipartisan legislative proposal to better prepare for future health emergencies. public, which should be presented this grave. The AAMC submitted pandemic preparedness recommendations on June 30 in response to a call for contributions from Murray and Burr stakeholders [refer to Washington Highlights, July 1].

“The stronger our health services are at all levels, the more efficiently they can work to use modern sequencing technology and data systems to track the spread of disease and monitor the success of vaccination efforts, set up tests. and seek contacts to stop epidemics, develop scientific guidance to meet local needs, build partnerships in hard-to-reach communities and build confidence as communicators and fight disinformation, ”Murray said.

Burr shared recommendations for federal agencies represented by witnesses, including that the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) “play a bigger role [in] … Controlling public health and medical response during emergencies, with better coordination between federal agencies, better data availability and public health surveillance, stronger partnerships with private sector innovators,… and visibility on our supply chain for critical drugs.

Burr added that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should also continue to accelerate their basic research efforts, including making greater use of academic partnerships.

In his opening statement, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH, Anthony Fauci, MD, noted the accumulation of real evidence of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines as a important update since his May testimony before the committee. He added that NIAID is engaged in research to understand whether booster injections will be needed to “increase the durability of protection” against SARS-CoV-2.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD, added that additional authorizations would be required to allow the booster injections since the vaccines are currently approved under an authorization from the United States. emergency use.

Several members requested information on breakthrough infections, in which individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said a recent study of deaths from COVID-19 showed that 99.5% of those deaths were in unvaccinated individuals. She also noted the role of academic medical centers and hospitals in collecting data on breakthrough infections, providing data on COVID-19-related hospitalizations and vaccine status, as well as data on vaccine status in the community. community.

Senator Ben Ray Lujan (DN.M.) cited the increase in immunization rates in Hispanic communities who received information about vaccines in Spanish and asked how the CDC will build on the successes of the cultural outreach appropriate to combat COVID-19. Walensky responded that the CDC’s Immunization Toolkit is available in more than 20 languages ​​and the agency continues to partner with trusted community leaders to lead advocacy efforts.

On substance use disorders, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) Asked how the CDC would address dual opioid use and COVID-19 pandemics. Walensky cited COVID-19 and substance abuse as the two main contributors to the recent decline in life expectancy in the United States. and providing toolkits related to substance use disorders and mental health.

Senator Maggie Hassan (DN.H.) asked ASPR Dawn O’Connell about the agency’s efforts to improve the National Strategic Stockpile (SNS), citing the Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act (S. 1974). The legislation, which Senator Hassan recently introduced with Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Aims to improve the maintenance of the SNS, increase the domestic manufacture of SNS products, provide additional funds for the stocks of the State and increase transparency on the SNS inventory.

O’Connell said the agency used the $ 10 billion provided as emergency additional funds by Congress to replenish the SNS, which has deployed more than 200 million items during the pandemic and continues to expand partnerships with national manufacturers.

Regarding the SNS, Burr highlighted the challenges of developing a sustainable supply chain at the national level, with the federal government accounting for only 4% of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchases. He offered to explore the feasibility of “creating a trade bloc for the Americas” to increase PPE manufacturing in North and South America and promote competitive pricing against other global suppliers.

Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) Urged agencies to make improvements by distributing Provider Relief Fund funds more quickly to support healthcare providers in the pandemic response, and to provide more detailed advice for the use of funds. The Department of Health and Human Services recently extended the deadline for providers to use the funds following requests from Congress and stakeholders, including the AAMC [refer to Washington Highlights, June 17].

Burr also questioned witnesses about federal agencies’ preparedness for this year’s flu season amid an ongoing pandemic. O’Connell noted that agencies are actively working with vaccine manufacturers to ensure access to influenza and COVID-19 vaccines this fall.

The HELP committee will hold the next COVID-19 response hearing on July 27 as committee leaders continue their work on pandemic preparedness legislation.

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