Gillibrand renews call for public health force

Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Courtesy of Tribune News Service

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is renewing calls for a public health workforce that would initially be tasked with making sure COVID-19 vaccines are distributed efficiently.

Gillibrand first proposed creating a Health Force, Resilience Force And Jobs To Fight COVID-19 bill in November as Congress mulled federal relief funding.

The bill did not gain traction in the fall, but Gillibrand renewed her push for the legislation in a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

The legislation would designate $40 billion in funding to establish a force of health care workers to aid in the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccinations nationwide.

The health force would bring another benefit, Gillibrand said, creating jobs and bolstering a flagging national economy.

Creating a health force aimed specifically at the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide vaccination efforts is vital as the death toll from the virus has exceeded 350,000 in the U.S., she said.

“Too many of those deaths were the result of a lack of a coordinated public health response,” Gillibrand said Tuesday. “This year we must do more to stand up a nationwide response capable of carrying out an efficient large-scale vaccine distribution program.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 13 million vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, but only 4.2 million have been given to the American people, Gillibrand said.

“Those numbers fall far short of the Trump administration’s goal to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020,” Gillibrand said. “In New York, less than 275,000 of the nearly 900,000 doses that the state has received have been used. That is less than 1 in 3 available doses.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised similar concerns this week, threatening to impose fines of up to $100,000 on state hospitals that do not administer the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to eligible New Yorkers quickly enough.

President-elect Joseph Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office. Increasing the number of people who have been vaccinated would help stem the soaring number of COVID-19 cases nationwide, Gillibrand said.

“Vaccinating a significant portion of our population so quickly will help us take a major step towards ending this pandemic, but we will not be able to reach that goal without providing reinforcements to our health care workers,” Gillibrand said. “That is especially true now as we prepare to see another spike in cases following holiday travel and the spread of a new, highly contagious strain of COVID, which has now been confirmed to be in New York.”

The U.K. strain of the virus is more highly contagious and has been found in Saratoga County, the governor announced Monday.

As vaccination efforts have rolled out slowly, Albany Medical Center has put out the call for volunteers willing to help administer the vaccine.

The federal government must do its part, and the Health Force, Resilience Force And Jobs To Fight COVID-19 bill would do that, Gillibrand said.

“This bill would invest billions of dollars into local public health care infrastructure and recruit hundreds of thousands of Americans to support vaccine communication, distribution and administration efforts in their own communities with a particular focus on underserved communities,” Gillibrand said.

Workers trained in the health force would be retained after the pandemic is over to work on other health issues such as opioid addiction, nutrition, mental health and more, and could be utilized in the event of a future health crisis, Gillibrand noted.

Gaining bipartisan support in a highly fractured Congress could prove daunting, Gillibrand said, especially if the Democrats do not win the two Senate seats in Georgia in Tuesday’s runoff election.

“If we do not win the Georgia seats, I will really have to aggressively look at what changes I can make to make this idea appealing to some Republican senators,” she said. “Even if I get them on the bill, I don’t know if I can get it put to a vote by [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell.”

Gillibrand is working to secure support from at least one Republican senator to move forward on the bill, she said.

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