‘We’re in a race against death’: South Bay legislator backs COVID-19 relief bill
A field planted with white flags near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C., serves as a reminder of the toll of COVID-19. Photo by Katie King.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Calling it a “moral and economic duty,” a South Bay lawmaker is urging Congress to support an emergency legislation package that would provide $160 billion for public health efforts to fight against COVID-19.

Among other provisions, the American Rescue Plan would direct $10 billion to expand the domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment, $20 billion to ramp up vaccination supplies and testing sites, and $50 billion to increase lab capacities and research new variants of the disease. It would also establish a public health corps to address misinformation in local communities.

“The health benefits of this plan are abundantly clear, but these measures will also aid our economic recovery,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said last week at a virtual hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health.

Eshoo, who chairs the subcommittee, explained the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated $10 billion is saved for every day the nation speeds up vaccinations. Meanwhile, Moody’s Analytics, a financial services company that provides economic research, found the American Rescue Plan would create 7.5 million jobs and add eight points to the GDP in 2021.

“This subcommittee must move quickly and purposefully,” Eshoo said. “We’re in a race against death.”

Four health experts testified at the hearing, which was held to discuss COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Dr. Luciana Borio told lawmakers she feared the worst days of the pandemic could still be ahead. Borio is the vice president of In-Q-Tel and a former director for medical and biodefense preparedness for the National Security Council.

The virus is evolving, she said, with variant strains from Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom now spreading globally.

“We must take urgent measures to reduce the spread of this virus to lessen the opportunities for the virus to further mutate and become even more dangerous,” she said, adding COVID-19 continues to burn through the nation because many people refuse to follow public health guidelines.

She advised legislators to encourage telework when possible, and to redouble efforts to promote the importance of social distancing and the use of masks.

Eshoo asked how the new variants could affect the current vaccination rollout plan.

“We do need to begin to be prepared in case we do need to manufacture at large scale the new candidates if there is a significant erosion in protection and we need to re-vaccinate the population,” Borio said. “We do not know right now if that will be necessary.”

Dr. Julie Morita urged legislators to focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable populations, such as frontline workers and communities of color. Morita is the executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is the largest public health philanthropy in the United States.

“The country is consumed with total allotments and weekly averages instead of whether shots are getting in the right arms,” she said.

Low-income Americans who lack a vehicle or internet connection are also at a disadvantage, she explained, because they are unable to book an appointment online or drive to the vaccination site. But she said simplifying appointment systems and bringing vaccinations directly to at-risk populations could help.

During the H1N1 pandemic, Morita recalled how the foundation partnered with pharmacies and community health centers in Chicago that provided care in neighborhoods with less access to traditional health care providers. More than 1 million vaccines were ultimately distributed.

Eshoo thanked the witnesses for their input and said the subcommittee would consider all their advice.

“With a new administration and a new Congress and a new commitment, we can optimize a new beginning,” she said.

In addition to providing $160 billion for public health efforts, the American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion package proposed by President Joe Biden last month — would also allot billions for schools, small businesses, local and state governments, food and housing assistance and direct payments to individuals.

Republicans balked at the cost and proposed a $618 billion relief package instead. But the Democratic legislators are moving forward  with a measure that will allow the plan to pass with a simple majority — meaning Republican support wouldn’t necessarily be required.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the American Rescue Plan a “massive, partisan, poorly-targeted borrowing spree” and slammed the Democrats’ decision to push forward without bipartisanship support.

“The new president talks a lot about unity but his White House staff and congressional leadership are working with a different playbook,” he said.

More than 460,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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