On June 23, 2020, Governor Michael O. Leavitt, former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) in a hearing titled, “COVID-19: Lessons Learned to Prepare for the Next Pandemic.” HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a white paper titled “Preparing for the Next Pandemic” and held the hearing to seek additional input on recommendations for legislation to prepare the U.S. for the next pandemic, which may be a second wave of COVID-19 this fall.
Governor Leavitt discussed his experience with the emergence of the H5N1 virus during his time as Secretary of Health and Human Services. He worked with President George W. Bush to acquire new appropriations for pandemic preparedness, engage in pandemic summits with states around the country, and write a national pandemic response plan.
Governor Leavitt described pandemics as a biological fact. They are inevitable, and they bring sweeping change to society. However, they generally occur far enough apart in time that people forget the lessons learned from one pandemic to the other. Governor Leavitt said it is important for multiple entities, including the federal and state governments, schools, and businesses, to be prepared for pandemics before they happen.
Governor Leavitt highlighted five lessons important in responding to future pandemics:
Cooperation by Federal and State Governments
There needs to be clear delineation between federal, state, and local duties in response well ahead of the emergence of a pandemic.
Domestic Capacity to Manufacture Vaccines
Having a viable vaccine with effective domestic manufacturing, fill and finish, and distribution capacity is essential. We need to keep manufacturing facilities used for pandemic vaccines “warm” to ensure readiness.
Modern Data Collection and Aggregation
The CDC must have situational awareness on disease spread to guide the government’s response; this requires a more modern and integrated data infrastructure.
Modernize and Sustain Our Public Health Infrastructure
Pandemic preparedness requires yearly appropriations to ensure adequate infrastructure and planning, rather than episodic funding only during emergencies; public health funding has been malnourished for nearly 40 years and requires rejuvenation.
Urgency of Preparedness
We must identify potential threats (known and unknown) and responses before they happen. Preparedness exercises must be done regularly at the federal, state, and local government levels, as well as by the private sector, communities, and families.
During the question and answer portion of the hearing, senators asked the witnesses about their experience with pandemics and immediate and future needs to better prepare and respond. Governor Leavitt spoke to how public health funding has been malnourished for nearly 40 years and requires rejuvenation. He discussed the need to keep manufacturing facilities used for pandemic vaccines “warm” to ensure readiness. He also addressed the critical need for modern data infrastructure as an important duty of the federal government in providing situational awareness about the course of the pandemic. He also discussed thoughts on needs for federal funding and local execution of contact tracing.
Governor Leavitt’s full written testimony can be found here.
Video of Governor Leavitt’s testimony can be found here.