Mar 8, 2022 - Health

It's time to prepare for future pandemics, experts say

Illustration of binoculars with a lightning storm reflected in the lenses
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

America needs major new spending in areas like disease surveillance and next-generation PPE if it wants to avoid repeating mistakes of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two reports out this week.

Why it matters: The reports are among recent attempts by public health officials to lay out the weaknesses exposed by the pandemic and the steps needed to build more resiliency in the health system before the next crisis.

What they're saying: "If we had another pandemic come along in the next year, I'd be very confident that it would be the same, if not worse," Devin Jopp, CEO of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, told Axios.

  • "If you don't have the ability to have surge capacity, if you don't have trained infection preventionists, if you don't have testing capabilities or if there are manufacturing issues or supply chain challenges — and we haven't addressed those — then we haven't learned anything," Jopp said.

Between the lines: A report released first to Axios by APIC calls for Congress to fund a number of public health improvements, such as more resources to protect health care workers on the job.

  • The group calls for the development of off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all respiratory devices or masks that don't need fit testing for each individuals' face, as well as PPE that's designed to be cleanable and reusable.
  • "Major lesson learned: If healthcare workers are fearful for their own safety and health, it affects patient care. They're tied at the hip. We saw that directly with COVID," said Linda Dickey, APIC's 2022 president and interim senior director for quality, patient safety and infection prevention at UCI Health.
  • They also call for supply chain improvements, improved testing capacity, better IT systems for sharing public health data, and investments for building up the infection control workforce at all levels, including in long-term care and nursing homes.

State of play: It comes on the heels of Monday's release of a COVID roadmap by dozens of health care experts, including former Biden advisers, calling for a more comprehensive playbook for shoring up the nation's public health infrastructure as we transition out of the pandemic.

  • Zeke Emanuel, an author of the roadmap who served on then-President-elect Biden's COVID-19 task force, said the goal is to make sure the mistakes of the past aren't repeated. He pointed to the example of SARS in 2003.
  • "We didn't take that lesson and say, 'Wow, there is a real potential threat out there and let's build the right infrastructure.' We moved on," Emanuel told Axios. "Countries that did take SARS seriously and built an infrastructure like Taiwan, like South Korea, like Japan, did much much better during COVID."

The big picture: Last week, the Biden administration rolled out a new national COVID-19 preparedness plan that calls for maintaining free access to vaccines, masks, tests and drugs, as well respond more quickly to potential future variants.

The bottom line: Public health preparedness is gaining traction, but the real test will be how much money lawmakers vote to spend as inflation fears are rising.

  • "We lost an estimated $7 trillion in lost economic output [due to COVID]. The government has pumped trillions of dollars into the economy," Emanuel said. "Investing another few hundred billion dollars to forestall those kinds of problems? That has a huge ROI."
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