America’s recovery from COVID-19 will require much better federal coordination and planning, according to the sponsors of a new House bill.
H.R.6525, the Reopen America Act, establishes criteria under which states, or groups of states, can begin to formulate a plan to ease pandemic restrictions. Under the bill, said plans would be submitted to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who along with a panel of scientific and medical advisers would work with the states to further develop the plans and fund their implementation.
It would also create an entity that would oversee the production and distribution of medical supplies in order to keep states from competing with one another for them.
The bill has five main sponsors, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, among them. The others are Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland; Donna Shalala, D-Florida; Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York; and Anna Eshoo, D-California.
Raskin led a news conference Friday where he, Welch, and Shalala discussed the bill and why they believe it’s needed.
Welch said the COVID-19 pandemic is a shocking event, the likes of which have not been seen in 100 years. “But as shocking as it is, the way to address a pandemic is known. It is social distancing, and then it’s testing and contact tracing, and quarantine,” he said. “What we have to do in order to put this monster at bay is clear, the challenge for us is execution, and the execution has to take place by doing what this bill suggests, and that is the federal government has to play a role of organizing and mobilizing.”
He praised Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s handling of the pandemic, saying Scott’s aggressive stance on social distancing, driven by science and data, has allowed the state to slowly begin easing its restrictions.
“But at the federal level, it’s totally scattered, and we see that with what the president is doing; where he’s for opening the beaches or against opening the beaches; he’s now advocating we take a look at using Lysol disinfectant to see whether that works. That is not what is called a coordinated, organized approach, it’s a person who is essentially speculating, he’s become the speculator-in-chief as opposed to the organizer-in-chief,” said Welch.
Raskin said the aid bills Congress has passed so far primarily seek to alleviate the economic damage done by measures taken to limit the spread of the disease. What’s needed now is a law guiding states on how to go about easing restrictions.
The most recent bill, passed Thursday, Raskin said, contains $25 billion for COVID-19 testing and some language on states developing reopening plans, but more is needed.
“Our basic assertion is, there’s a science to this, and too much of the discussion about reopening has been mired in politics,” said Raskin. “I waited with bated breath for the president’s release of what they were calling their reopening plan last Thursday, but alas when it was finally released, there was no plan at all.”
The bill aims to eliminate what its sponsors have said is a “chaotic federal approach to the pandemic.”
“The governor of Georgia thought he was reading the signals of the president and announced he was going to begin reopening on Wednesday,” said Raskin. “The president then turned on him and said, no, he was opposed to that, but then yesterday the president said he was very excited about all the reopening activity that’s taking place, I think in Utah and Tennessee, and, of course, what we’ve got, predictably, is chaos.”
Before submitting a reopen plan to HHS, states would have to show their health care systems won’t be overwhelmed, and that their COVID-19 transmission rates are below one.
“What that means is the average person who has the disease is infecting no more than one other person,” Raskin said. “Hopefully, of course, (they infect) nobody, but less than one puts the course of the disease on the downward slope.”
The bill, he said, also establishes the Health Equipment Production Board, which “will be located under the Defense Logistics Agency, it’s modeled after the war production boards of World War II and prior military mobilization.”
Coordination between states is key to preventing future outbreaks and the need for more or extended lockdowns, said Shalala, a former HHS secretary.
“If one state reopens too soon, there’s no way to stop the state next to it from getting an increase in infection, and that’s why we need a national strategy with real scientific public health standards, because this disease, unless we’re going to build walls between the states, this disease is simply going to go across borders,” she said.