Congress should create a national board on pandemic preparedness 

Cornell University

As we approach the frightening, chilling milestone of nearly 1 million dead from COVID-19, it should go without question that preventing this loss of life again should be a top priority of our United States Congress, regardless of party affiliation.   

The recent release of a discussion draft of the bipartisan Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats and Pandemics Act (PREVENT Pandemics Act) is a significant step forward toward enhancing our nation’s security. We applaud Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) for putting forth critical policies that would strengthen federal and state preparedness, improve our response capacity through data systems modernization, accelerate research and countermeasure discovery, modernize the supply chain for vital medical products, and enhance development and combat shortages of medical products. 

While the PREVENT Pandemics Act proposes a short-term task force to examine the initial emergence of the pandemic and the nation’s response, we also believe that the legislation should include a permanent oversight mechanism so that the United States is equipped to respond to future threats. There is currently no congressionally chartered body for evaluating the state of America’s pandemic preparedness system, leaving the nation vulnerable to a suboptimal response to public health emergencies and future pandemics. For this reason, we and our colleagues on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Future of Health Task Force call on Congress to create a national board on pandemic preparedness. The independent board would establish a set of metrics and benchmarks for evaluation of federal and state pandemic preparedness capacity and capability; gauge how the nation is faring against these metrics; and develop an annual report to Congress on the state of pandemic preparedness with specific recommendations.  

The board should consider some broad thematic areas while developing metrics including, nonpharmaceutical and pharmaceutical mitigation measures; public health, emergency management, and health care system coordination; equity in emergency response planning; exercising of response plans; standardized data collection and reporting along with data privacy and security standards; real-time surveillance and systems; vaccination infrastructure, distribution and uptake; and, stockpiling and supply chain resiliency. Throughout the metric development process, Congress should require that the board consult with stakeholders, including relevant federal agencies, private sector organizations, and subject matter experts.  

Since an effective national response is partially dependent on state-level preparedness, we also propose that Congress require the board to develop state-level measures and core requirements for the purposes of assessing state pandemic plans. States would submit their respective plans to the board annually, and the board would use its established measures and core requirements to determine states’ levels of pandemic preparedness.  

Similar to high-level boards such as the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, we believe the national board on pandemic preparedness should consist of leaders in the federal government and private sector. With respect to the former, this should include Cabinet-level officials who oversee federal agencies and programs that are critical during pandemic emergencies. The board could be staffed by career civil servants in a new Office of Pandemic Preparedness located at the U.S. Government Accountability Office and charged with the explicit purpose to support the board in carrying out its functions, particularly producing the annual report to Congress. 

We believe that sustainable investments to support a national board, the policies laid out in the PREVENT Pandemics Act, as well as state and local public health infrastructure are vital to achieving optimal preparedness and response. Leaders in both parties should find common ground to make certain that these investments are included in future legislation. 

We cannot let the memory of the onset of COVID-19 begin to fade away from our collective experience. Given the unique health, economic, and societal implications of a pandemic, it is critical to elevate pandemic preparedness to the highest levels of policymaking. The better prepared we are today, the better our response will be in the future. 

The authors are co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Future of Health Task Force. Daschle, a BPC co-founder, served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and as Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2003. Frist, a BPC senior fellow, is a physician and served in the Senate from 1995 to 2007 and as Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2007. 

Tags COVID-19 disease preparedness Patty Murray Richard Burr

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