Mar 15, 2022 - Health

Partisanship undermines a playbook for the next pandemic

Illustration of a dead tree with surgical masks on the branches blowing in the wind.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public health experts are already creating blueprints for the next pandemic, but it seems increasingly unlikely that policymakers or Americans themselves will have much of an appetite to follow those plans.

Why it matters: The past two years have provided concrete examples of what works and what doesn't, but those lessons can only help if the U.S. is willing to apply them — whether in response to another new variant or an entirely new virus sometime in the future.

Where it stands: Public health mandates are lifting, driven by strong public sentiment, even though children under 5, people in vulnerable health and the non-vaccinated remain at risk.

  • Congress can't agree on funding to ensure there are enough vaccines and therapeutics to adequately safeguard the U.S. against future waves of COVID-19, even though there are signs from Europe that another wave may be heading our way.
  • The struggle over supporting even the near-term pandemic response bodes poorly for the prospect of longer-term systemic changes that experts say are necessary.

Go deeper: COVID-19 yielded revolutionary vaccines and provided a real-time test for widespread testing and tracing, herd immunity strategies and government-led drug development.

  • Experts say the supply chain issues, difficulties administering vaccines on a mass scale and messaging challenges around a constantly evolving threat provided valuable lessons for future responses.

But the full-on government response — largely build around developing vaccines and minimizing the number of cases — has clashed with some Americans' perceptions of personal freedom, making schools and workplaces flashpoints for polarizing debates.

  • "You never had Republican and Democratic positions on polio," said Robert Blendon, a professor at both the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "We've let politics get in the middle of this."
  • A lot of what happens next hinges on whether Congress will fund free treatments, testing and masks, according to infectious diseases specialist Céline Gounder.

Yes, but: It will be a huge challenge to arrive at any public health consensus when states are split over measures like government mandates and polling shows rising distrust with the CDC and other authorities.

  • Experts say it's nonetheless vital to apply lessons learned and answer such questions as whether the government needs another Operation Warp Speed — this time tied to COVID therapeutics, instead of vaccines — or on how far the government can go with pandemic-related closures.
  • The Senate health committee today begins considering a pandemic preparedness bill.

Blendon said the national discussion will have to account for the myriad disruptions the pandemic injected into people's lives — a job, he said, could be handled by a 9/11-style commission that includes economists, child psychologists and other experts.

  • "Part of the discussion has to be about what happens to kids and markets and psychology," Blendon said. "This was a really disorienting issue for many people. The advice given changed frequently and you have to take into account the impact of that."
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