Monday, June 14, 2021

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Biden to ask for $400 billion to bolster fight against covid-19


President-elect Joe Biden is calling on Congress to pour another roughly $400 billion into fighting the coronavirus pandemic to create a national vaccination program, expand testing, and hire 100,000 more community health workers.

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Part of a broad relief package to lift up the nation's economy and ease the devastation caused by the pandemic at its worst moment so far, Biden's request spells out his oft-stated determination for the federal government to assume a far more muscular role in responding to the public health crisis.

The scale of what the president-elect envisions far outstrips the funding Congress devoted to fighting the pandemic in a stimulus package it adopted late last year, as well as the sums that House Democrats had unsuccessfully sought.

In particular, senior members of the incoming administration said before Biden's Thursday night speech that he wants to invest an additional $20 billion to build a federal infrastructure for administering vaccines to protect Americans against covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. It would include adding an unspecified number of locations in communities across the country where people could get shots, as well as mobile sites to go into rural communities and other places where retail pharmacies and health-care facilities are scarce.

"This is a national emergency, and we need to treat it like one," said one Biden official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the president-elect's remarks. "We are woefully behind on where we need to be . . . Delay means more illness and more deaths."

Biden's push a half-dozen days before he takes office comes as criticism has mounted of the sluggish pace of immunizing Americans, since two vaccines won federal authorization for emergency use last month. The mass vaccination campaign is considered urgent to protect people from the virus, which is overwhelming many hospitals and killing thousands of people every day.

As of Thursday, at least 11.1 million people have received a first dose of one of the vaccines, each of which requires a two-dose regimen. That is slightly more than a third of the 30.6 million doses that have been distributed to states, cities and U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden said more than a month ago that he wants 100 million shots to be given within the first 100 days of his presidency, a period that goes through late April.

He is scheduled to release a detailed vaccine plan Friday, but the financial underpinnings laid out Thursday reflect the fundamental difference between the incoming administraton's approach and that of President Donald Trump. In the fall, the Trump administration directed each state to write and submit its own vaccination plan. Biden's team maintains that such an unprecedented vaccination campaign requires strong federal coordination, greater funding and some aspects to be run by the federal government itself.

"We are in a race against time," the Biden official said. "We need these resources to vaccinate Americans and put covid behind us."

The $20 billion Biden requested in additional money for vaccines compares with nearly $29 billion included in Congress's December stimulus package - about $9 billion of the latter for vaccine distribution.

Overall, the approximately $415 billion for pandemic-fighting in Biden's relief request compares to roughly $50 billion approved by Congress last month for that purpose, according to Marc Goldwein, senior vice president for the Committee for a Responsive Federal Budget. Goldwein said House Democrats had wanted earlier last year to spend approximately $100 billion for that purpose.

The president-elect also wants to invest $50 billion in a large-scale expansion of coronavirus testing, including the purchase of tests that provide rapid results and to expand laboratory capacity. Such expansion, his team contends, would allow schools to test students and staff more frequently, making it safe for schools to reopen - another goal he set last month for his first 100 days in office.

Biden is seeking money to hire 100,000 public health workers to encourage people to get vaccinated, as well as to do contact tracing to figure out who has been exposed by people who test positive. Over the longer term, he envisions these workers helping to build up the nation's depleted public health departments. His advisers did not spell out how much money would be needed for this purpose.

A portion of the funds would be used to expand genomic sequencing to detect new strains of covid-19, including more-rapidly spreading variants that were first detected in Britain and South Africa.

Other aspects of his request are intended to provide help to people living in poor communities or those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities who have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. His proposal would expand funding for community health centers and for health services for Native Americans on tribal lands.

The proposal would, in addition, help states deploy "strike teams" to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities with outbreaks of covid-19, as well as to help slow the virus spread in prisons and detention centers.

Published : January 15, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Amy Goldstein