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Rep. Annie Kuster: What's the plan to fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccine?

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ON FEBRUARY 28, 2020, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar came before the House Energy & Commerce Committee to discuss a rapidly developing public health crisis. Though New Hampshire had not yet identified its first case of COVID-19 — that would come less than a week later — it was apparent that the Trump administration did not have a plan to address a widespread pandemic.

That day, I told Secretary Azar that the key to any public health crisis is trust and credibility. Nearly six months later, we see resurgences across the country — just this week, we exceeded 5 million coronavirus cases nationally, only 17 days after reaching 4 million. For more than two weeks, the U.S. has averaged 1,000 COVID-19-related deaths daily, and the death toll of this virus has surpassed 167,000 Americans. Any trust and credibility in this administration’s pandemic response are all but gone.

The lack of a national testing strategy has crippled efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus and reopen our economy. Almost six months into this pandemic, states across the country are seeing record-setting surges in cases. As other nations have successfully contained the virus and are safely reopening, the U.S. continues to struggle with a lack of testing supplies, backlogged laboratories, and increasing demand as states reopen without the support of this administration in securing the necessary infrastructure and workforce to do so. Even here in New Hampshire, where the numbers have remained relatively low despite a recent uptick in cases, some Granite Staters are waiting more than 10 days for COVID test results.

According to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), any test result that takes more than 48 hours is not useful for the clinical management of a potential COVID-19 patient or in reducing the spread of the virus. Without rapid test results, the uncertainty around fully reopening our economy and safely sending our children to school is far too great.

At the same time, technological advances in science have allowed us to develop a vaccine faster than ever before. We continue to hear promising results from clinical trials, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, believes we will have a safe and effective vaccine in 2021.

While this is phenomenal news, I remain concerned given the ongoing challenges with testing. How can we have confidence in this administration’s preparedness to manufacture, distribute, and administer a vaccine when they have yet to establish a successful strategy for testing? Just this month, six states formed a compact to purchase tests because this administration has not provided a national testing strategy, leaving states to fend for themselves. We cannot allow history to repeat itself when a safe and effective vaccine becomes available.

A comprehensive plan for a future COVID-19 vaccine will limit confusion, reassure the public, and give the American people confidence in our preparedness. The plan must ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine and include a strategy for administering it to front line health workers and vulnerable Americans, including seniors in nursing homes. A safe, effective vaccine that enjoys the full confidence of the American public is our best defense against the COVID-19 pandemic.

America’s innovation and ability to produce a safe vaccine is unmatched, but we cannot squander our leadership in science with a lack of leadership on strategy. That is why I am urging Secretary Azar to establish a coordinated plan for equitable vaccine distribution based on science and public health expertise. As I said in February, the key to any public health crisis is trust and credibility, and planning for a future vaccine today is an opportunity to rebuild that trust for tomorrow.

Congresswoman Annie Kuster (D-NH) is a member of the Energy & Commerce Committee and introduced H.R. 7104, the Coronavirus Vaccine Development Act. She lives in Hopkinton.