Here's the scoop on what's happening this week in Congress
This week, the Biden Administration announced $7.4 billion to hire more public health workers. The new investment, according to the announcement, will allow states and localities “to expand their over-stretched public health departments with additional staff to support COVID-19 response efforts. This funding will support a range of public health roles, including funding for Disease Intervention Specialists to do contact tracing, case management, and support outbreak investigations…”
Specifically, new funding will likely pay for an additional 6,000 disease intervention specialists, a.k.a. “Disease Detectives,” working in local and state public health departments to track the spread of existing and new infectious diseases. The funds, that are expected to be released to public health departments over the course of five years, may also be used to keep many of the temporary contact tracers and vaccination center workers in their jobs following the COVID-19 pandemic for future pandemic preparedness.
Years of chronic underinvestment resulted in the public health workforce losing nearly a quarter, or 50,000, personnel before the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to exacerbating many other epidemics as well, including the exponential surge in rates of sexually transmitted disease infection, rises in opioid-related hospitalizations and deaths, firearm / weapon violence, and others. For the first time this year, the country has seen fewer than 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day for over a full week. However, other health issues worsened through 2020. The U.S. saw 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in 2019, an almost 30% increase in those STDs between 2015 and 2019. Moreover, on Thursday, CDC Director Walensky highlighted how her team had to deal with increases in measles cases, salmonella, and two outbreaks of Ebola during this pandemic.
Despite common ground between Democrats and Republicans on the need for investment in U.S. infrastructure, disagreement on the shape and size of proposals remain. Biden’s initially proposed $2 trillion + package that would be occur over eight years and be financed by corporate tax increases has drawn criticism from Republicans and moderate Democrats because of its broad construction and inclusion of nontraditional projects like housing, workforce development, and climate change provisions.
The Republican proposal is more limited in scope and focuses on more traditional infrastructure priorities like roads, bridges, and broadband internet and would cost a fraction ($568 billion over 5 years) of what the Biden team has proposed. However, after a two-hour long meeting with President Biden this week, Senate Republicans agreed to “rework” their infrastructure spending proposals – a move that suggest some traction behind the Biden Administration’s commitment to striking bipartisan deals.
The White House is expected to release the President’s full budget on May 27.
On Wednesday morning, Rep. Liz Cheney was voted out of Republican House Leadership by House Republicans due to her repeated criticism of former President, Donald Trump. The decision was a result of a voice vote during a closed-door meeting in the basement auditorium on Capitol Hill. Rep. Cheney urged her colleagues to refrain from allowing the former President to drag the Republican caucus backward. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a moderate Trump ally, is the only candidate running to replace Rep. Cheney and currently has the support of House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy.
On Thursday, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated American’s no longer need to wear masks or socially distance in most places – and that in most cases, people will be able to set aside the masks in both indoor and outdoor settings with exceptions for public transit, health care facilities, correctional facilities, or homeless shelters. The announcement comes two weeks after the agency announced that fully vaccinated people could remove their masks in non-crowded outdoor settings. On Thursday, CDC Director Walensky said “the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads” pushed the CDC to expand its guidance.
The CDC announced this week that it will amend its clinical guidance to allow COVID-19 vaccinations, including other child vaccines, to be co-administered on the same day or 14 days apart due to many school-aged children missing other recommended vaccines over the past year due to COVID-19-related disruptions. CDC officials stressed the importance of catching up on school vaccinations in coordination with COVID-19 to ensure a safe return to in-person learning.
On Wednesday, Secretary Xavier Becerra testified before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on the Department of Health and Human Services budget request. In the hearing, Secretary Becerra committed to reinstating the LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections that were significantly narrowed under the Trump administration permitting medical providers, hospitals, and insurance companies to deny coverage based on a person’s sex or gender identity.
The discrimination protections that were instituted during the Obama Administration. But in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Bostock v. Clayton County ruling that prohibited sexual orientation and gender identity-based employment discrimination, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services rolled back Obama-era rules that protected people who were seeking health care from discrimination by narrowing the definition of “gender” enough to preclude LGBTQ – especially transgender – people from protection against discrimination during a pandemic.
Years of federal policy opening room for discriminatory practice has resulted in many forgoing care and treatment. HHS Secretary Becerra’s commitment in Monday’s hearing aligns the Biden administration’s reoriented commitment to building back better to leverage health equity and combatting generations of mistrust in underserved communities.
On Tuesday, the Senate by a vote of 61-37 approved the nomination of the former Obama administration HHS Chief of Staff and senior counselor to the secretary, Andrea Palm to serve as Deputy Secretary of HHS.