Washington, D.C. — At a Senate Health Committee hearing this morning titled, “COVID-19: Lessons Learned to Prepare for the Next Pandemic,” U.S. Senator Susan Collins urged top officials from U.S. health agencies to take action to address the racial disparity health care workers in Maine and throughout the country are facing in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the hearing, Senator Collins discussed recent data from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention (Maine CDC) that was published in a Portland Press Herald article on COVID-19 racial disparities in Maine.
“COVID-19’s impact on long-term care settings directly intersects with the stark racial disparities that we’re seeing, and unfortunately—and remarkably—Maine has the nation’s worst COVID-19 racial disparity. Many of the worst outbreaks that have occurred in Maine are in nursing homes, and the CDC reports that some 40 percent of those health care workers that have tested positive were identified as Black or African-Americans,” said Senator Collins.
Senator Collins sought recommendations on the best ways for Congress to help address this racial disparity among front line nursing home workers.
“[Long-term care facilities] are intrinsic hot spots, and we need to test often and test everyone who comes and goes from those centers until such time that we can demonstrate that transmission has been contained. I can’t say enough about how critical it is to not overlook the most vulnerable people and that includes the elderly people but also those who are vulnerable on the basis of underlying conditions and often, that tracks with the racial and ethnic disparities that you’re alluding to,” replied Dr. Julie Gerberding, Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Officer, Merck & Co., Inc., Co-Chair, CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security, and former CDC Director from 2002 to 2009. “…the first step is to make the measurement clear and transparent so that we all have to stare it in the face and recognize that we’re not successful until we deal with that challenge.”
At an Aging Committee hearing earlier this year on better protecting our seniors during the pandemic, Senator Collins, the Chairman of the Committee, expressed her strong support for regularly testing all nursing home residents and staff to help stop the spread of COVID-19, and she reiterated her support for universal testing at long-term care facilities today.
During the hearing, Senator Collins also asked Dr. William Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon and the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, if the Senate should consider providing incentives to encourage domestic manufacturing of pharmaceutical drugs.
“One of the lessons from the global COVID pandemic is that our country is far too dependent on foreign manufacturing of drugs, diagnostics, and other medical supplies. For example, about 80 percent of the basic components used in active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) are coming from China and India for our U.S. market. Just about the time the COVID-19 epidemic hit the United States, India stopped exporting 26 APIs,” said Senator Collins. “Are there specific incentives that the Senate should consider to encourage domestic manufacturing, including perhaps tax incentives or greater investment in FDA’s Emerging Technology Program?”
“I think this whole coordination of procurement is huge... As you pointed out, we have been inadequately prepared here. We have seen it day in and day out, and we can do so much more to establish this resilient, domestic, right-here-at-home manufacturing… ensuring a robust support of the National Strategic Stockpile,” replied Dr. Frist. “We have to step in, whether it’s with direct tax credits, whether it’s with a funding stream by an artificial market that is set up over time, we do have to keep a revenue stream out there that is dependable, that is sustainable, that is long-term, and that is flexible, because it will change year-to-year in terms of what those specific manufacturing needs are.”
Senator Collins authored the Mitigating Emergency Drug Shortages (MEDS) Act with Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) to speed up approval of drugs in shortage, include greater reporting requirements on sources of APIs, and establish redundancy plans in the case of drug shortages. Components of this bill were included as part of the Phase 3 coronavirus emergency response package that was signed into law on March 27, 2020.