Letter pushes testing funds; Vela: $250B needed for national strategy

MGN Online

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela., D-Brownsville, and two of his congressional colleagues on May 7 sent a letter to House and Senate leadership urging prioritization of $250 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for front-line healthcare workers, first-responders, and food and agricultural workers as lawmakers work on the next national emergency relief package.

The letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was signed by House Agriculture Committee members Vela and Lisa Blunt Rochester, and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. They wrote that a “robust plan of action for testing and contact tracing” is critical to ensuring that the American public, the nation’s workers and the economy “can return to a new normal as soon as possible.”

“ In order to achieve this goal, we need an investment of $250 billion in funding so that Americans can return to work as safely as possible, and to avert a second wave of outbreaks in the U.S., which would wreak further havoc on our nation’s economy,” the letter reads.

While gains have been made in the nation’s diagnostic testing capacity, with 1.6 million tests a week now, healthcare experts note that U.S. testing is still far below the 30 million tests per week that are necessary according to the authors, citing a Rockefeller Foundation report. Vela told The Brownsville Herald on May 8 that the $250 billion figure is based on a plan, produced by a bipartisan team of experts at the foundation, for scaling up testing from the current level to 30 million per week.

“ We wanted to make sure and get a letter to Pelosi quick because they are smack in the middle of drafting the next (emergency relief) proposal,” Vela said. “I’m convinced that the next Democratic proposal is going to provide significantly more funding for testing to do what we’re talking about than anything we’ve seen. I just don’t know what the number’s going to be. But we will know in the next week, if I had to guess.”

The new package comes on the heels of the original $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed March 27, and an interim package with another $310 billion for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (which ran out of money soon after its establishment under the CARES Act), $75 billion for hospitals and healthcare providers, and $25 billion to expand testing nationally — the rollout of which has yet to be seen, he said.

“ We’re still waiting,” Vela said. “It seems to me like from the outset what we should be doing is putting all of our first dollars on a federal testing strategy. The problem is there’s been a general unwillingness from the Trump administration to acknowledge that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s hard to say whether that’s going to change or not.”

It’s also tough to know what will wind up in an eventual relief package, or whether Pelosi will include the $250 billion for testing that Vela and his colleagues have asked be made a priority, he said.

“ I think the speaker is going to put in a big number for national testing,” he said.

Vela said the package that the Democrats are putting together will be expansive, with funding for hard-hit state and local governments and “things that we still haven’t seen yet.” It may contain more funding for PPP and/or direct payments to Americans such as that included in the CARES Act, he said.

“ And so we’re going to pass that,” Vela said. “Republicans in the Senate are going to object and they’re going to presumably come up with their own package of some sort. And frankly I think we’re going to be at a stalemate for a few weeks, up until the point where the speaker and the White House and McConnell are back at the negotiating table hammering it out, like they have the last two times.”

Though the primary goal is make sure people on the front line are getting tested, Vela said, he hopes that the $250 billion will go toward a much broader strategy of national testing that would “soften the blow” of the pandemic until a vaccine is created.

“ If we’re lucky it’ll all fizzle out, but my sense is we’re not that lucky,” he said. “Given what the scientists say, to me it defies logic that we’re not going full throttle on a national testing strategy. If there was ever a purpose for the Defense Production Act, production of testing in this context is the obvious answer.”

Without a national testing program and until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to be a matter of racing to shut down COVID-19 outbreaks where and when they occur, Vela said. Nueces County has had good success containing the virus compared to the rest of the state, though seven cases were confirmed last week among employees of a meat processing there, even as the state continued down the road of reopening the economy.

In a portion of leaked audio from a call between Gov. Greg Abbott and state legislators and members of Congress on May 1, the governor conceded that reopening will inevitably result in more contracting the virus.

“ Listen, the fact of the matter is, pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening, whether you want to call it a reopening of business or just a reopening of society in the aftermath of something like this, it actually will lead to an increase in spread. It’s almost ipso facto,” according to the audio. “The more that you have people out there, the greater the possibility there is for transmission, and so the goal never has been to get transmission of COVID-19 down to zero.”

The letter from Vela and his colleagues to House and Senate leadership argues that “testing is the number one way to give us an objective, data-driven assessment of where we stand in our fight against this virus,” while contact tracing will reveal additional cases to provide healthcare workers and patients with the information they need to help prevent further spread.

“ We’re going to be putting out fires in that respect with all these flare-ups in places where people gather until we have a vaccine, unless we put a national testing strategy into place,” Vela said. “If I was the one writing the bill, my priority number one would be $250 billion for national testing.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com