The amount of the coronavirus samples that have shown up in wastewater have recently shown a spike in the BA.2 subvariant of omicron. It’s not just our sewer systems that are hinting at a coming COVID surge: Caseloads are up in the U.K. and Hong Kong, along with hospitalizations are on the rise there, too. Nobody wants to hear about the potential for another virus surge, but is the U.S. government even prepared for what happens now? On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Dan Diamond, a health care reporter at the Washington Post, about what’s next for the pandemic and the federal response. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: What happened when the White House and Congress tried to work together to get some funding for COVID aid? It was supposed to be part of a Ukraine aid package.
Dan Diamond: Starting a few weeks ago, the White House began amping up calls for aid specifically to fund the country’s COVID response. Some folks in Congress said that started too late, that they were already moving ahead on a funding package, and that the White House needed to be more specific on what had been spent earlier. Republicans specifically dove in and said: We’ve spent trillions of dollars over these past few years. Why weren’t we better prepared for omicron? Where were the tests that we needed? Where did all the money go for these supplies? Why should we set aside additional money now? So that has been a major sticking point.
This was not exclusively a Republican issue, though the Republicans were loudest about it. The White House has had some trouble answering those questions. The Democrats in Congress then said, Maybe there’s a way to repurpose the funding that has already been committed but not spent. So House Democrats came up with a plan where they were just going to take money that had already been pledged to states and use that for buying more antivirals and vaccines.
Does that mean taking money away from the states?
That’s exactly what it means—money that had been pledged to the states but not spent.
This does not sound like a popular idea.
It was not, for understandable reasons, and the states revolted. So Democrats said, We’re just going to pull this COVID funding deal out of the Ukraine package and deal with it later. Well, now it’s later, and it’s not clear what the path is to passage. Republicans remain dug in, and Democrats now say they want even more money.
Funding is already beginning to run out, right? What are the changes people are going to see in the next few weeks, in terms of what kind of COVID care they can access and what they can’t?
Some of the pullback of availability of tests and centers is due to the fact there’s been so much less demand, and you don’t need to staff big centers if people aren’t showing up. But one of the biggest differences is that when I got a PCR test, it was the first time I’ve self-administered it. The entire time, there was no one standing behind a booth. It reminded me kind of doing an at-home test.
So they really are like, We’re going to whittle down the staff here. It’s going to be DIY.
In terms of the immediate fallout, the first program that appears likely to lose money is a program for uninsured Americans that provided reimbursement for testing and treatment. So, if you’re uninsured, you could show up to your doctor and say, “I need a COVID test,” or “I need this COVID treatment.” The doctor would be able to submit that claim and get it covered. If you’re uninsured, you might have to start paying now for testing and treatment in a few weeks. That program also will stop covering vaccines for the uninsured. Another area of risk is that we are running out of monoclonal antibodies. They are being used up to the point we need to order more. It’s the kind of thing where you can’t order it on Friday and expect them to be shipped on Monday. This is something that needs to be manufactured over time, and companies aren’t going to do it unless they have the preorders. Longer term, to get vaccines in the fall and make sure that we have enough doses—if everyone, it turns out, may need a fourth shot—we need to start placing those orders now. If we’re not placing those orders now, other countries are going to step in front of us in line. We’ll be waiting for those orders to be filled before the U.S. order gets completed.
It sounds like the first people to be affected will be the uninsured, who often get the short end of the stick. With the monoclonal antibodies, people who are sick or immunocompromised and need them, they’ll be affected, and then eventually everyone else will be.
Yes, the people who are most at risk—who are already on the fringes because they don’t have health insurance, who don’t have the means—they will be the first ones to feel the impact of this. If there’s no funding, eventually that will spread more and more to the rest of us.