The era of laissez-faire COVID-19 prevention

Congress should make sure there is appropriate funding for people who choose to take tests and get vaccines and boosters

A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test last September in Washington, D.C. Now is the perfect time to negotiate a cease-fire in the battles over the deadly virus, Shapiro writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test last September in Washington, D.C. Now is the perfect time to negotiate a cease-fire in the battles over the deadly virus, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 29, 2022 at 6:00am

Let me apologize in advance. I know as a columnist I should be writing about the Slap Heard Round the World at the Oscars. But forgive me because I instead feel compelled to comment on an obscure, nearly forgotten topic: the pandemic.

OK, it's been more than two years, and I know you’re bored with COVID-19. And now with the omicron variant fading, no one tests positive for the virus anymore.

Except since mid-March (and this is an extremely partial list): former President Barack Obama, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Karine Jean-Pierre (Psaki’s deputy, who accompanied President Joe Biden to Europe), Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

Since COVID is so yesterday, Congress is treating the topic with all the urgency of a proposal to create a strategic federal reserve of ping-pong balls. In early March, a $15.6 billion funding package for pandemic relief got dropped from the overall $1.5 trillion federal spending bill to fund the government.

The reason: a lack of agreement on how to pay for it. It’s $15.6 billion. Do you grasp how small that number is against the backdrop of the $5.8 trillion budget that Biden unveiled Monday?

Put another way, $15.6 billion is a rounding error in the fortunes of people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Roughly 40 people on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans could ante up the $15.6 billion themselves — and still have enough left to remain billionaires afterward.

Already, because of the delay in congressional funding, Americans without health insurance are losing access to free COVID-19 testing. Within 10 days, the uninsured may also have trouble getting vaccinated or obtaining a booster without paying for the shots out of their own pockets. And the government-funded supply of monoclonal antibody treatments is fast dwindling.

Efforts to replenish the COVID-19 funding (the original Biden proposal was for $22.5 billion) will have to attract 60 votes in the Senate because of the threat of a GOP filibuster. Only amid the crazed partisanship of the moment would anyone consider filibustering a modest appropriation to deal with a deadly virus that has killed almost 1 million Americans in just two years.

In truth, this is the perfect moment to negotiate a cease fire in the COVID-19 Wars.

With Hawaii becoming the last state to drop its mask mandates and the airlines pressuring the Biden administration to eliminate any required facial covering while aloft, the nation has entered a new phase as (knock on wood) the pandemic has become endemic.

No longer are the federal and state governments trying to protect citizens from COVID-19 through elaborate rules and regulations. Now Americans are on their own to decide how much protection they personally want through vaccinations and masking.

This is, in a sense, the era of laissez-faire COVID-19 prevention. As a result, a major role for the federal government in the future is to give Americans the tools to protect themselves if they choose to use them.

Rapidly mailing home COVID-19 tests to anyone who requested them from an easy-to-use federal website is a model of a successful program. Yes, the Biden team was slow off the mark, and there are still far too few free tests available. But, undoubtedly, thousands of lives were saved and hospitalizations prevented because infectious people knew enough from the home testing to self-quarantine.

For people like me who take COVID-19 seriously, it remains tempting to rage against the anti-vaxxers and bristle in crowded indoor environments where no one is wearing a mask.

But after two years of the pandemic, what good would it do? No one suddenly decides to get vaccinated because strangers are yelling at them. No one, as I have discovered, willingly puts on a mask because someone nearby is glaring at them.

If I can give up my moral righteousness (and, trust me, it’s hard), then I am in a position to ask for tolerance from those who somehow believe that COVID-19 is a media plot or that they have miraculously acquired superhuman immunity.

No one should be stigmatized or mocked for wearing a mask any more than people with glasses should be ridiculed for their vision choices. In similar fashion, it is reprehensible to demonize public officials like Anthony Fauci because you don’t fully agree with their public health pronouncements.

I recognize that I am probably being naive in hoping for a truce after two years of venom and vitriol over COVID-19. The worst pandemic in a century has given everyone permission to transfer the scorched-earth political battles of the Trump era into a new arena.

Ideally, I wish more Americans recognized the prudent need to be vaccinated and boosted. I regret that there isn’t more awareness that crowded indoor places with bad ventilation offer the potential to become super-spreader events.

Similarly, I hope that more Americans will come to appreciate the difficulties that public health officials face when forced to make societal decisions based on incomplete information about the virus and its spread.

At minimum, I want spending for public health to be regarded as integral a part of national security as funding the Pentagon to counter Russia and China.

That is why it is unconscionable that the Senate is wrangling over the funding formula for COVID-19 protection at a time when 5,000 Americans per week are still dying from the virus.

This is foolish frugality. Everyone loses when Congress plays politics as usual over spending for COVID-19 tests, vaccines and preparedness. As hard as it is for some to accept, we’re all in this public health crisis together.