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Congress Is Leaving Americans to Fend for Themselves Against Omicron BA.2

With fears of a new Covid variant rising, legislators are dithering on providing enough money for testing and care.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

A week ago, Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, tested positive for Covid-19, prompting Harris to cancel several planned appearances. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dropped out of President Biden’s upcoming trip to Brussels after she too tested positive for the virus. There have been serious upticks in cases in both Europe and Asia in recent weeks, prompting lockdowns in China; new cases in the United Kingdom have jumped more than 80 percent in the last two weeks.

The warning signs of yet another wave, caused by a new variant—BA.2, which first appeared in November—preparing to hit the United States are everywhere. And yet, at this precise moment, public concern about the virus seems to be at its lowest point in two years. Moreover, the political will to put efforts in place to prevent future waves, protect the vulnerable, and dampen potential economic shocks has also started to wane. On Monday, the White House said that it was “simply out” of funding to combat the virus—the result of a fight over government spending in the House of Representatives last month.

The result is a looming disaster: funding for free tests and medical treatment drying up at the worst possible time. It’s also a disaster for the future of fighting the pandemic. At this moment, it seems highly likely that the virus will be with us in some form for quite a long time. And yet while Congress should be figuring out ways to make it so the virus is less disruptive and deadly, it will instead be squabbling over funding that may arrive too late to make a difference. To have two years of knowledge about how to fight this pandemic on hand and be in this kind of disarray is inexcusable.

And it will be inexcusable even if BA.2 proves less disruptive than some fear, which is a distinct—and perhaps hopeful—possibility. The federal government is warning that without additional funding, it will also cease to be able to adequately track the virus, leaving us dangerously exposed to future variants that may prove more dangerous. Nor will it be able to pay for monoclonal antibody treatments that have proven to be effective in dealing with severe cases.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration asked Congress for an additional $22 billion in funding to fight the pandemic. In the House, members of both parties have thrown up roadblocks. Republicans have long since stopped caring about fighting the virus and are refusing to vote for any new spending: Inflation is often cited, but it’s also quite clear that they have no interest in helping the administration accomplish anything as the midterm elections approach.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, have also balked at providing the money, albeit for slightly better reasons. Some of the money that House Democrats had allocated for Covid-19 measures came from unused stimulus funds intended for the states—representatives from states that had not yet received their money protested that this was not right. “It’s really not fair because some states got the money all at once, some states didn’t. The first case was diagnosed in Washington. So we also had it much earlier and we had to deal with it. I don’t know if we can fix it in this, or we can fix it somewhere else,” Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, whose state could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Covid mitigation funding, told Politico.

As New York’s Ed Kilgore wrote earlier this month, “The trouble now, of course, is that the new COVID funding will (barring some unforeseen crisis) no longer be nestled in must-pass legislation that at least some Senate Republicans will grudgingly support.” Now attempts to fund Covid response efforts appear to have stalled out completely. Even the PREVENT Pandemics Act, a small step in the right direction that would provide a measly $2 billion—much less than experts are calling for—to fight future pandemics has lost traction.

This is potentially catastrophic for a slew of reasons. The most obvious is that the pandemic is still very much raging. Deaths may have declined from their most frightening peaks, but hundreds of people are still perishing from the virus every day. There is no guarantee that these metrics will simply decline on their own—in the best-case scenario, Covid-19 will enter an endemic phase and be with us for a very long time. This is, in other words, hardly a moment to decrease our vigilance. Rather, we should prepare for this reality by passing legislation that adequately tracks new variants, treats new cases, and protects vulnerable and disabled populations.

Unfortunately, political and public attention has simply moved on. A large swathe of the public seems to have grown weary of simple mitigation efforts; state and local governments have followed suit, relaxing restrictions on masking and other preventative measures. The Biden administration is focused, understandably, on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps sensing a growing indifference to the virus—and perhaps seeing poll numbers inching upward on the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis—the administration has also not pushed aggressively for more mitigation funding.

This is a messaging issue, as well: Biden ran on ending the pandemic, and the administration wants to make the case by the midterms that the country has, at the very least, reopened. This reflects the advice that Democrats are receiving: A February polling memo from Impact Research counseled Democrats to “declare the crisis phase of Covid over and push for feeling and acting more normal,” by “point[ing] to important victories like vaccine distribution and providing economic stability to Americans, and fully entering the rebuilding phase that comes after every war.” That might be good advice if the money to execute a rebuilding phase was at hand. Simply saying the pandemic is over is not enough: More must be done to ensure that future variants are less catastrophic.

All of this presumes that the current level of mass death—a level, it’s worth noting, that would have been tragic at any other time in recent American history—is acceptable. For moral reasons, this is calamitous. For political ones, it’s highly risky. Yes, the administration finally has some traces of midterm momentum after months of disarray. But the pandemic isn’t over, and pretending otherwise is remarkably dangerous. Any turn for the worse could add to Democrats’ already substantial midterm burdens. If the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats cannot aggressively model Covid preparedness and practice the art of staying ahead of the pandemic’s ravages, it’s hard to imagine who will.