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Blunt: Critical Aid for Schools, Workers, Health Care Included in HEALS Act

July 30, 2020

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor/HHS), spoke on the Senate floor to highlight provisions in the HEALS Act focused on getting students back into the classroom and people back into the workforce as safely and quickly as possible.

Blunt also noted that the bill includes the funding needed to improve testing and speed up the development of vaccines and treatments. Click here for more details on the Labor/HHS priorities included in the bill.

Following are Excerpts of Blunt’s Remarks:

Funding for COVID-19 Testing:

“If you’re going to go back to school, if you’re going to back to work, if you’re going to go back to child care, if you’re going to be in a nursing home between now and the time we have a vaccine, tests that are easy to take, and quickly respond, a test that you could take and in 10 or 12 or 15 minutes have the answer, will make all the difference and we continue to push for that in this bill. In fact, there are about $9 billion in a fund that maybe should have been designated a little more specifically, but it hasn’t been spent. It was designed to be a testing fund and that with another $16 billion makes testing available for those priorities. For nursing homes, in that state-federal partnership, we say in this bill that a priority for the federal government in that partnership is tests that work in nursing homes, tests that work in child care centers, tests that work in elementary and secondary education, tests that work in colleges and universities, that allow people to get back into those situations. In a residential campus, to know that you’re there and you have a way to not only test people quickly but to get an answer quickly.

“Frankly, Mr. President, President Trump is right when he says the current testing, the way it has been working, really doesn’t do much but measure how many people had the disease. Not even how many people necessarily have the disease but how many people had the disease. If you have a test and you don’t get an answer for five or six or seven days, what good did it really do you to take the test? Certainly didn’t do you much good in terms of not infecting others because you don’t know that you’ve got it, particularly if you’re that high percentage of people that don’t have symptoms but are still able to spread the disease.

“That’s why, Mr. President, a test that would give you an answer in 15 minutes makes all the difference in the world. You’re on a college campus, you take that test, in 15 minutes you’ve got the answer. And if the answer is ‘you have this,’ then your next place to go is somewhere where you’re by yourself. 

“I think almost every campus that’s returning to residential campus living is setting aside some of their dorm space. Some campuses, all their dorm space is single student dorm rooms. But in every campus that I’ve talked to, some rooms are set aside just so that student has a place to go.

“If you show up at the nursing home, as a worker, and in 15 minutes, you find out you have COVID, the last place you need to be is that nursing home. But if you don’t know for five or seven days whether you had COVID or not, really doesn’t help out very much. So I think what the president has said on testing makes a lot of sense. But doesn’t mean the tests aren’t good, it just means we need better tests. And we have put a lot of money and effort behind those tests.

“I think the National Institutes of Health will be announcing some tests we’re moving forward with that do just what I suggested sometime in the next few days.”

Funding for Vaccine Development and Distribution:

“[We] put another $26 billion toward vaccines. Our colleague, Senator Daines, has been very helpful in looking at this organization called BARDA that was designed a decade ago to be able to respond to a pandemic and never has really been effectively used in my view in that way. But this time we are using it and intend to continue to use it to form those partnerships with the private sector early on to begin to produce a vaccine even when we don’t know absolutely for sure it’s going to be FDA-approved, but do know if it is FDA-approved, we want it as soon as it can possibly be available. And if it’s not FDA-approved, it never gets used. But if it is FDA-approved, Mr. President, the difference in a vaccine that is available January the 15th and a vaccine that is available May the 15th is worth a loss if it doesn’t work out. Let’s say you went forward with five of these and three of them worked, and you’ve got vaccines, maybe 300 million doses on January the 15th, and you had to destroy a couple hundred million doses because that didn’t get through the full safety requirement. All the difference in the world. Lives saved, the economy restored. And we’re moving forward with that and putting another $26 billion behind that.

“We also have language in our bill that requires an effort, that was announced yesterday, which is for a group of scientific ethicists to start talking about what the priorities should be for that vaccine when we have it. Who should get it first, what our priorities should be, how do we distribute this in a way that seems fair and equitable. How do we distribute this in a way that somebody who can’t get into a car and drive 100 miles to a doctor, and pay for a shot, has the same chance to get the vaccine as somebody who could do all of those things. Our bill requires that. …

“Everybody thinks we might have a vaccine available by the end of this year, early next year. No reason to wait for that to happen to have a plan. I’d like to see a plan on October 1 and I told the chief of staff of the president that again yesterday. “

Funding for Community Health Centers and Health Care Providers:

“This bill provides money to be sure people who go to places like community health centers are going to have a community health center that can respond to what they need. $7.6 billion to community health centers.

“Another $25 billion to providers that lost income, which is almost every provider. …We’re trying to do what we can not to exceed income they would have normally had but to replace some of that income. Also money for rural clinics that would step up and do that.”

Funding for Mental and Behavioral Health Challenges:

“Senator Capito and Senator Collins, particularly vigorous in being sure we had the money we needed for people who have mental health challenges, many of which have gotten worse during this isolation period and this job loss period and this, somebody or you in your family are sick period. And the opioid deaths, the substance abuse deaths have gone back up for the first time in about three years. And that’s totally logical when you think about it.”

Funding for Child Care Facilities: 

“Bipartisan priorities should include school as I’ve said before. Frankly, need to include child care. If you’re going to get America back to work, you’re going to have to have a child care system that works. And that’s not going to happen on its own. About half our child care facilities have closed since the first of March. The other half that have been open have struggled trying to stay open. Many have benefited from the PPP program. But at the same time, when they stay open or others re-open, social distancing, the reluctance of people to send their kids back to a place where there are lots of other kids. Probably no more than 50% occupancy. Not going to make up for that by doubling the amount that families are paying for child care. So you need to make up for that with the kind of grants and assistance that are in this bill.”

Funding for Schools to Safely Re-Open:

“School needs to re-open safely based on state and local criteria. This bill includes money for schools to do that. Elementary and secondary schools, about $70 billion. We’re exactly, frankly, we’re a little bit ahead of where the House was in the HEROES Act.

“Now if you get into a bidding war with the House, you’re never going to win a bidding war. But if you get into a realistic discussion, only 90 days ago or so, 60 days or so, the House thought they needed $100 billion to re-open schools. We suggest $105 billion. I read in some report that they then decided maybe it was $400 billion if the Senate was willing to spend $105 billion. 

“We should be able to figure this out and figure this out quickly. With some of that money being available only if you go back to school in-person and some of it available if you go back to school as others will do virtually depending on, again, their situations locally.

“We’re ready to move forward. Answers to these important questions are in this bill. I look forward to talking about it to not only our Democrat colleagues in the Senate but our colleagues in the House.”

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