The AP interview: Health chief warns of lack of COVID funds

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the nation yearns for a new normal after its long battle with the coronavirus, U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra warned Thursday that vaccines, tests and treatments would be “grounded” unless that Congress provide the additional funds that the White House has demanded.

“We have reached a turning point, Becerra said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The quality of our pivot depends on us.”

Omicron variant BA.2, which causes a rebound of the virus in Europe and Asia, is gaining traction in the United States, although the total number of cases here is still falling. And Becerra said a funding standoff with Capitol Hill could hamper the Biden Administration promising new strategy called “test to treat”.

Under the plan, people could go to their local pharmacy for a COVID test, and if positive, receive medication that they could then take at home. A “one-stop shop”, he called.

But “if you don’t have the money to fly it, you’re stuck,” Becerra said. “You are grounded.

In a wide-ranging interview, Becerra also expressed concerns about the rise in cases among children. as schools lift mask requirements.

Schools have become a flashpoint in the COVID response, with some parents opposing mask requirements as an invasion of personal liberty and others reluctant to put their children near any potential risk. With the pendulum now swinging in the direction of unmasking, Becerra said he hoped the cautious would not be singled out.

“I hope there is no stigma of a child,” he said. “If a parent says, ‘I want my child to wear a mask,’ good for them.”

He also said his Department of Health and Human Services is trying to prepare so millions of people won’t lose their health insurance if their Medicaid eligibility expires when the government ends the official COVID public health emergency. . During the pandemic, Congress provided more money for state Medicaid programs. But in exchange, the states were prevented from tearing down the lists.

A more comfortable new normal is within reach, Becerra said, but it depends on two things. One is the virus, which has proven difficult to control. The other is Americans’ sense of personal responsibility. With less than half of the eligible population now augmented, even as medical experts weigh a new fourth round of vaccines, more calls for personal responsibility could be ignored.

Asked about the likelihood of a return to a more relaxed and normal life, Becerra replied: “If everyone does their part, then yes.”

But he quickly added: “If not, get ready. This thing is hard to tame. COVID has taken us on a wild ride.

The White House and Congress are deadlocked over President Joe Biden’s request for $22.5 billion to continue the government’s COVID response this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to secure a $15.6 billion package, but various objections from Democrats and Republicans prevented a deal from being struck. The White House said money for some efforts, including purchasing additional booster doses and for monoclonal antibody treatments, will run out by the end of this month. Also at risk: free COVID care for the uninsured.

As for the “Test to Treat” program, Becerra said it would help people get medicine soon after being infected, avoiding possible hospitalization.

“Testing to treat is essential,” he said. “You are doing a great deal to prevent the spread of COVID.”

But at the moment, the option is not widely available. Pharmacy “Locations don’t grow on trees, like money doesn’t grow on trees, and that costs money,” Becerra said.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has struggled to clearly communicate with the public about COVID risks and countermeasures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of HHS, has been particularly criticized for giving complicated and changing advice.

But Becerra said those who spread misinformation about the coronavirus must bear the brunt of the blame for confusing Americans.

“Scientists have communicated pretty clearly with the American people what to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, someone else decides to skew or skew the message, or completely twist it in a way that is wrong.”

Becerra likened the pandemic to a five-alarm fire that’s contained but still dangerous.

“You need to feel like things have stabilized” before attempting to transition from COVID, he warned.

“We have to get to a point where we believe the health status of the country and our people is stabilized enough,” he said. “I think we’re getting closer and closer to the point where we don’t see the need to have those five alarms anymore.”

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