Sep 15, 2020 - Health

Washington gridlock could make the pandemic much worse

Illustration of a medical mask with a hundred dollar bill on it crumpled on the ground
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Congress is unlikely to pass another coronavirus relief package before the election — and that's bad news not only for people who are struggling financially, but also for our efforts to contain the virus itself.

Why it matters: All signs point to a difficult winter ahead, and congressional inaction could make things much worse by forcing millions of people to choose between following public health recommendations or feeding their families.

The big picture: The U.S. containment strategy, as flawed as it is, depends on people who may have the virus getting tested and staying home until it's safe to come into contact with others again.

  • But staying home is harder for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, and for those who don't have homes.
  • "If people need to go out and panhandle…if they're evicted and they need to be in shelters…they're not going to be able to protect themselves, and their priority is not going to be to protect themselves from this virus," Columbia's Jeffrey Shaman said.

Between the lines: Stimulus bills have gone beyond giving financial aid to individuals. They also provide additional money for testing, and Democrats' proposals have included more money to help state and local governments.

  • Although there's some leftover money from previous bills, "states are hemorrhaging cash, and so we're not going to have money for testing for schools, or other high risk work places, [or] essential workers, [or] first responders," Brown University's Ashish Jha said. "What that means is that those folks aren’t going to get tested."

A lack of resources will serve as a disincentive for people to get tested and then isolate, putting themselves and their communities at risk, experts said.

  • “Desperate individuals who need the money are likely to go to work with mild symptoms, but they could surely be infectious, so this is a major disincentive," the University of Minnesota's Michael Osterholm said.
  • The choices could be particularly brutal for working parents. Preventing transmission within schools — and thus within families — is dependent on sick or exposed kids being able to stay home.

The bottom line: “No doubt about it, the failure to pass this will make it much harder to contain the virus in the fall, and that means we will see larger outbreaks, more people getting sick, more schools closed and more economic devastation across the nation," Jha said.

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