U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., increased political pressure on congressional leaders Tuesday to include legislation in the next federal COVID-19 package to train a national health force to ensure an approved coronavirus vaccine will be equitably available for all Americans.
Gillibrand sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; House Speaker U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to include the Health Force and Resilience Force proposal.
The proposal, led by Gillibrand and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and supported by Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, who all signed the letter, would invest $40 billion in local public health infrastructure to create a national health force of hundreds of thousands of Americans to bolster the U.S. health system to ensure equitable distribution of a COVID-19 immunization.
“We’re asking leadership to recognize as we prepare for the distribution of safe vaccines against COVID-19, we will need a public workforce to make those plans reality,” Gillibrand said during a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Pfizer and Moderna announced last week their respective experimental COVID-19 inoculations are nearly 95% effective. British drugmaker AstraZeneca revealed Monday a vaccine under development with Oxford University appears to be up to 90% effective.
Several developing COVID-19 vaccines require each person receive two doses 21 to 28 days apart, some of which need to be refrigerated at minus-80 degrees Celsius.
Pfizer, a Manhattan-based drugmaker, is working to secure emergency use of its immunization to allow for expedited national distribution.
“I know everyone is looking forward to normal days and looking forward to do normal work,” Gillibrand said. “An effective vaccine will play a major role in that. First, we have to get it distributed nationwide.”
Successfully distributing a coronavirus vaccine to all Americans requires the additional force of medical personnel, Gillibrand said, because doctors and nurses are battling surging COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.
Largely Democratic state and federal lawmakers have expressed concern the distribution plan by President Donald Trump’s administration, which relies on big-box pharmaceutical companies such as Walgreens or CVS, would disproportionately overlook poor and minority communities most impacted by the pandemic.
The health force would create community-based public health jobs and resources to improve vaccine education and outreach in every area across the state and nation, including small rural towns upstate, to meet the unprecedented demand.
“[Health force officials] would distribute vaccines, debunk myths and perceptions surrounding the vaccine and provide data entry support,” Gillibrand said.
The public education effort would help ensure patients receive the required number of vaccine doses within the necessary time frame.
The specially designated health force would use community health centers, senior centers and other similar local facilities to reach the smallest and poorest communities — especially areas upstate and across the North Country Region, Gillibrand said.
Similar community vaccine health programs have improved immunization rates in the past. More than 1,000 community health workers with New York City’s Start Right Coalition provided education about child vaccinations, initially raising child vaccination rates to 80% and to 97% after five years, Gillibrand said.
“We need that kind of participation rate for the vaccination effort to be effective,” she said.
The Health Force plan would help address the economic crisis plaguing every state across the nation by hiring hundreds of thousands of people.
The proposal is inspired by the Works Progress Administration program, an American New Deal agency from the Great Depression, which employed millions of Americans to complete various public works projects.
“[The Health Force] helps create jobs, fosters trust in the programs themselves and develops a much-needed pipeline in medical jobs for people of color who, for far too long, have been unrepresented in the field,” Gillibrand said, adding it would provide a pathway for people to get experience to go on to become doctors, nurses and pharmacists. “It addresses the alarming racial and health disparities exacerbated by this pandemic to prepare America against future health threats.”
The senator expects both Republican and Democratic lawmakers will support the plan, which is not partisan, she said. President-elect Joe Biden’s team has voiced support for the proposal.
“If we can get to the negotiating table between now and the end of the year, this is the kind of proposal that would be included,” Gillibrand said. “Whether we can include it before the break, we’ll certainly try to get a piece of it in now. We don’t need to get the whole $40 billion in one day, but you need to start organizing it. This is the legislation to support that vehicle.”
Gillibrand dismissed recent statements by Trump claiming New York will not receive shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine once approved after Gov. Andrew Cuomo cast doubt that Trump and his administration would approve a safe and effective immunization.
“There’s not a chance we won’t get the vaccine,” Gillibrand said. “That was false bravado and meanness on behalf of the president. There’s no basis in fact. There’s no world where New Yorkers will not be eligible for the vaccine like any other state.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.