SALT LAKE CITY — More money for public health would be a top priority if a former Utah governor were in charge of preparing the nation for the next pandemic.
Mike Leavitt told a Senate committee Tuesday that agencies that protect and improve healthy lifestyles have been “malnourished” for 40 years.
Rejuvenating the public health infrastructure is not only important in a time of pandemic, but in the health system that is working toward value. Social determinants of health will play an important role and will have “ongoing benefit both in and out of a pandemic,” he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Leavitt was among four panelists addressing the topic, “COVID-19: Lessons Learned to Prepare for the Next Pandemic.”
Democrats on the committee questioned the need to hold a hearing on planning for a future pandemic as cases and deaths are rising across the country in the current crisis.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said now is the time to prepare because the issue has the attention of Congress, which has a “notoriously poor record of short memories when it comes to doing everything that we need to do.”
As Health and Human Services secretary in the George W. Bush administration more than a decade ago, Leavitt led development of a federal pandemic response plan, including $7.4 billion in funding and vaccine manufacturing plants, on the heels of the 2005 avian flu outbreak.
“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare,” he said then.
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In the hearing, Leavitt told lawmakers that the roles of the federal government and the states must be clearly defined. State and local governments, schools, churches, businesses and hospitals all need to plan “because a pandemic is different than any other disaster that we deal with. It is intensely local,” he said.
“The message is clear that any state or any community that fails to plan, thinking that somehow the federal government will ride to its rescue, would be tragically mistaken,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt defended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the Trump administration and other lawmakers have criticized over its handling of the pandemic.
“CDC is a treasure, not just in the United States but around the world,” he said. “In an emergency, it’s easy to be critical. The reality is they need support.”
But, he said, the agency’s data collection and aggregation capabilities need to be modernized to better guide the nation’s response.
“Providing situational awareness is a significant role of the federal government, and principally CDC,” he said.
Leavitt also told the committee that the federal government must ensure capacity to make vaccines for the entire U.S. population within the first six months of a virus that has the potential to become a pandemic. The government, he said, has not adequately maintained manufacturing plants in a way that they could be ramped up quickly.
In addition, he said a response plan needs funding every year.