White House: Congress must act quickly to replenish COVID funds

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States will soon start running out of money to bolster COVID-19 testing supplies and to ensure uninsured Americans continue to receive free treatment for the virus unless Congress approves. more funding quickly, the White House warned.

Nearly a year after passing the $1.9 trillion U.S. bailout package, the administration says the federal government has nearly run out of money dedicated directly to the COVID-19 response. More congressional money is urgently needed to buy antibody treatments, preventive pills for the immunocompromised and to fund community testing sites, officials say.

“On the COVID side, the bank account is empty,” said deputy COVID-19 coordinator Natalie Quillian. “We are in talks with lawmakers on how to secure the funding, but it is urgent.” Some of the consequences could be felt later this month.

Last month, the White House told Congress it was preparing to request $30 billion for the virus response, but reduced that amount to $22.5 billion in a formal request earlier this week which, according to officials, includes only the most critical needs. It is coupled with a request for $10 billion to provide support to Ukraine and its people after the Russian invasion.

“This is an urgent request and this is what is at stake in our fight against COVID,” press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.

This month, the White House warns, makers of COVID-19 tests will begin to slow production of rapid home tests unless the federal government signs contracts to buy more. Officials say this could lead to a supply shortage if cases rise again.

They also said the Health Resources and Services Administration would be forced to start reducing COVID-19 treatment claims for uninsured people this month if Congress doesn’t provide more money. Additionally, the US government’s supply of monoclonal antibodies would run out in May. And in July, supplies of the prophylactic pill AstraZeneca that can prevent serious illness in immunocompromised people would run out. In September, the United States would run out of oral antiviral pills.

“Given the cost of COVID with so many of our fellow Americans hospitalized or dying, and our daily lives disrupted, we simply cannot afford to wait to invest now and protect people,” Psaki said.

The request also includes funding to support U.S. vaccine purchases and global vaccine distribution.

The United States has enough Pfizer vaccines for children under 5, should it be approved in the coming weeks. But if regulators make it a three-dose schedule, the administration would need more money to buy additional doses. The same would also be true if regulators determined that children between the ages of 5 and 11 should receive booster shots.

The White House has stressed that the federal government must sign contracts for drugs and vaccines months before they are needed, so Congress must act now to avoid any loopholes.

Some Republicans expressed shock at Biden’s request, urging the administration to reallocate other unspent relief funds.

“Oh no, that’s too much,” Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday when asked about the administration’s $22.5 billion request. “And second, we want to see how much money there is” that hasn’t been spent yet from previously approved COVID-19 relief measures.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and 35 other GOP senators wrote to Biden on Tuesday that before endorsing new funds, they want “a full accounting” of how the government has spent funds already provided.

The White House says it is open to the possibility of reallocating already approved and unspent funds, but stressed that the priority must be to continue to meet needs.

And the administration will ask Congress for additional funding in the coming weeks.

“We are reasonable in our urgent request now, but we know it will take more,” Quillian said.

Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has worked to make COVID-19 treatments and vaccines free. Earlier this year, Biden began shipping up to eight free virus tests to American households.

Quillian said the administration is open to eventually shifting the cost of injections and pills to insurers, like treatments for other illnesses, especially as the virus wanes. But she said the White House believes the COVID-19 recovery is still too fragile to effect change, and that Washington needs to foot the bill.

“We can’t waste our position,” Quillian said.

COVID-19 relief bills enacted since the start of the pandemic have contained $370 billion for public health programs, including vaccines and other medical supplies, testing, research and provider reimbursement, according to a chart from the Department of Health and Human Services obtained by The Associated Press.

Of that amount, $355 billion is currently being spent, has been spent, or has been committed to contracts, according to HHS.

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AP writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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