Here's the scoop on what's happening this week in Congress
This month the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH) is leading efforts to advance further the critical need for vulnerable and underserved communities to get vaccinated through their #VaccineReady campaign. On Wednesday, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities released its new NIH Minority Health and Health Disparities Strategic Plan 2021-2025 to chart a path to advance the science of minority health and related disparities.
NCSD is mindful of this transformational moment in time and stands alongside activists and allies supporting calls for the strategic reorientation of our nation’s moral fabric. We support the advancement of self-determined narratives to guide future frameworks grounded in community, dignity, and equitable health outcomes for traditionally underserved communities and communities of color.
While members of the House and Senate are not set to return for legislative business until April 12, this week’s Hill activity was all but stagnant. Rather, federal efforts continued at a breathtaking pace with the Biden administration’s announcement and release of its $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal on Wednesday from “The City of Bridges,” Pittsburg, PA. Proponents claim the administration’s enormous proposed investment in public infrastructure would be the most significant investment since World War II.
A Few Major Highlights: The four-part, eight-year plan includes proposals to significantly increase federal focus and investment in:
Despite former assumptions of bipartisan buy-in, Congressional Democrats are already probing the possibility of using the reconciliation process again – short after successfully advancing the administration’s popular American Rescue Plan. Reports this week indicate Senate Majority Leader Schumer has recently asked the Senate parliamentarian if the 2021 budget resolution could be used to pass two additional bills (one under FY 21 and another under FY 22) to advance this latest push for American infrastructure.
But this latest push will not come as easily. Already, three House Democrats — Reps. Pascrell (D-N.J.), Suozzi (D-N.Y.), and Gottheimer (D-N.J.) — have voiced opposition to the plan’s proposed corporate tax hikes and have pledged not to support the initiative unless a future version include a repeal of the $10,000 state and local tax deduction (SALT) cap. Other top Democrats have alternatively concluded that the proposed $2 trillion investment is not enough.
President Joe Biden’s remarks on Monday, alongside reiterated pledges that most American adults will be eligible for vaccination within weeks, included the administration’s announcement of an effort to increase the number of pharmacies in the federal vaccination program from 17,000 to 40,000 pharmacies. Monday’s remarks also included an announcement of the planned construction of 12 additional mass vaccination sites bringing the total number of mass vaccination sites up to twenty-one. Combined, the 21 mass vaccination sites will be able to administer nearly 80,000 shots per day. Most notably, the efforts will ensure that 90 percent of U.S. adults would be within five miles of a vaccine site, according to administration officials.
By mid-week, more than 15 percent of U.S. adults (or 51 million Americans) were fully vaccinated. And currently, 31 states have announced plans to beat the May 1 deadline that the president imposed on states last month by opening eligibility to all their respective residents by April 19 at the latest.
The weeks encouraging inoculation-related news, however, accompanied new, stark warnings of an emerging surge in COVID-19 infections. The president and federal public health officials highlighted new (somewhat expected) statistics revealing a reported seven-day, 10 percent surge in new infections due to what many officials blame on the various jurisdictions across the nation currently relaxing previously implemented pandemic mitigation/restriction policy measures. Expressing his concern in Monday’s White House press briefing, the president solemnly noted “…cases are going back up and, in some states, deaths are as well. You know, we’re giving up hard-fought, hard-won gains.”
The concerns are well placed. In just the past two weeks, COVID-19 infections have risen more than 20 percent across the U.S. and more than 40 percent in nine hotspot states like Michigan (133 percent increase), Connecticut (62 percent increase), New York (40+ percent increase), Pennsylvania (40+percent increase), North Dakota (near 60 percent increase), and Minnesota (47 percent increase).
As a growing number of large companies announce that they will require proof of vaccination as a condition for work, HHS and the White House COVID Response Coordinator, Jeff Zients, are leading efforts to develop tangible and digital credentials analogous to initiatives launched by the World Health Organization and IBM. Numerous organizations, including The MITRE Corporation and the Vaccination Credential Initiative, a coalition seeking to standardize vaccination data record tracking, are distilling the many anticipated challenges that will come with the development and implementation of an officially recognized COVID-19 credentialing system. Congressional Republicans have opposed proposals for a credentialing system, deeming such proposals as invasive. Similar sentiments have led local and state policymakers like Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to urge members of the state’s GOP-dominant legislature to pass legislation that would forbid vaccination passports or alternatively threaten executive action to prohibit the implementation of a credentialed “proof-of-vaccination” approach.
Last Friday, the CDC revised its in-person school instruction guidance by relaxing the previous six-foot guidance for elementary school students to three feet when all students are masked. Moreover, the new relaxed guidance is also applicable for middle and high school learning environments that exist in communities where transmission rates are “not high.”
The relaxed guidance for school-aged children preceded an additional age-related announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech reporting that results from their Phase III trials studying the company’s vaccine in adolescents aged 12-15 years concluding that the vaccine is 100 percent effective in children. The welcomed results should inform the priorities the Biden Administration has directed its attention toward within its first 100 days, including the safe reopening of schools.
Recent Burbio’s School Opening Tracker statistics show that as of March 14, nearly 50 percent of U.S. K-12 students currently receive “traditional” in person instruction five days each week, approximately 30 percent of students are currently learning under “hybrid” instruction models, and one-fifth (20.8 percent) of students currently remain under socially distanced “virtual-only” instruction.
NCSD congratulates Dr. Rachel Levine on her recent Senate confirmation as HHS’s next Assistant Secretary of Health. Dr. Levine’s historical confirmation makes her the first openly transgender federal official ever confirmed by the United States Senate.