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U.S. faces avoidable Covid deaths if Congress fails to pass funding bill, top health official warns

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Dr. Ashish Jha, Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response, speaks to reporters during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2022.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Top U.S. health officials on Wednesday reiterated their calls for Congress to pass funding for the nation’s fight against Covid-19, warning that failure to act now would result in an unnecessary loss of life in the fall and winter.

Their warning comes as new infections and hospitalizations are already on the rise again as more transmissible omicron subvariants sweep the U.S.

The nation is reporting more than 94,000 new infections daily on average as of Monday, a 25% increase over the week prior, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations have also increased 18% over the past week with about 3,000 people admitted with Covid every day on average, according to CDC data.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House Covid response coordinator, said infections are far higher because many people are now taking at-home tests which are not captured in the data.

“We know that the number of infections is actually substantially higher than that, hard to know exactly how many, but we know that a lot of people are getting diagnosed using home tests,” Jha said during a White House update on the pandemic Wednesday. “We’re clearly undercounting cases. There’s a lot of infections across America.”

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said 32% of Americans live in areas with medium or high Covid levels, a metric that takes into account infections and hospitalizations. The CDC recommends people to wear masks when indoors in public when their community has a high Covid level, which the public can check on the health agency’s website.

Still, the current wave of Covid cases, based on the data available, is about 90% lower than the first omicron wave during the winter, which was unprecedented in its scale and speed. Hospitalizations are also 86% lower than the peak of the first omicron wave.

Jha said the U.S. has a better national system in place to combat the current wave compared with past periods of the pandemic. For the first time, Pfizer’s antiviral trial treatment is widely available. It’s prescribed to people infected with Covid who are at a high risk of severe illness. Jha said the nation’s physicians are writing 20,000 prescriptions for Paxlovid every day.

The Biden administration is now allowing households to order eight Covid tests for free through the website, covid.gov/tests. The Food and Drug Administration also authorized third Pfizer shots for kids ages 5 to 11 this week. If the CDC signs off on boosters for that age group on Thursday, everyone age 5 and older would be eligible for at least three shots. People ages 50 and older can already receive a fourth dose, while people age 12 and older can receive a fifth dose.

However, Jha said the U.S. doesn’t have money to buy more vaccines, treatments and manufacture Covid tests for the fall. He warned that the U.S. would face a needless loss of life if Congress fails to pass President Joe Biden’s request for $22.5 billion of Covid funding. Public health officials are expecting another wave of infection in the fall as immunity wanes from the vaccines, the virus mutates into ever more transmissible variants, and people head indoors to escape the colder weather.

“We have to plan for a scenario where we don’t get any more resources from Congress. I think it would be terrible. I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss if that were to happen,” Jha said. More than two years into the pandemic, 1 million people in the U.S. have already died from Covid.

Jha said the FDA will likely adopt redesigned vaccines this summer that target mutations the virus has developed over the past two years, with the aim of giving people more durable protection against Covid. However, he said the U.S. would only have the money to provide those next-generation shots to people at high risk of severe disease, the elderly and immune compromised, if Congress doesn’t provide money. The U.S. would also run out of treatments for people who get infected, he said.

Jha also said Covid test manufacturers in the U.S. are already laying off workers and shutting down production lines because demand has dropped and the federal government doesn’t have enough money to support them. In the coming weeks, they will likely sell off equipment and get out of the business altogether. That would leave the U.S. dependent on test manufacturers in other countries if there’s a wave in the fall and demand for testing suddenly surges like it did over the winter.

Jha wouldn’t provide a projection of what the public should expect in the fall. He said the models vary widely because predictions are dependent on how much immunity is in the population from the first omicron wave and how much that immunity would protect against a possible future variant. He said Congress passing funding for next generation vaccines for all Americans would also change the projections of a fall wave.

Jha said has been talking regularly to lawmakers, particularly Republicans who have blocked the Senate from passing $10 billion in additional Covid funding. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, hammered out that much smaller funding deal in April. However, conservatives are refusing toe support the deal unless the CDC reimposes a public health law that the U.S. used to deport asylum seekers arriving at the border with Mexico during the pandemic.

Jha said he spoke to lawmakers again this morning on Capitol Hill and is optimistic that Congress will ultimately come through.

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