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In the next relief package Congress must fund universal COVID testing

In the next relief package Congress must fund universal COVID testing
© Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Right now on Capitol Hill, our elected representatives are making choices that will determine our survival as a nation amid a pandemic — the clock is ticking. As Congress negotiates its next relief package, it must consider the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the fact that universal access to testing and treatment is essential to stopping the spread of this deadly virus. This pandemic affects all of us, and we must have a unified and inclusive response — our lives depend on it.

New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic, now has some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infection in the country. While the lessons learned from the surge in cases earlier this year came with a heavy and disproportionate toll in many of our communities, our current success reinforces the need for widely available testing and equitable access to treatment now more than ever.

We worked together to minimize community transmission and provided testing and treatment for all, while simultaneously mobilizing and protecting our essential workers. With this concerted effort, we helped care for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who fell ill and paved a way to reopen safely.

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, people of all walks of life, including immigrants, respond to the call to help our country. Nearly 20 million "essential" immigrant workers help as restaurant employees, health care professionals, grocery store workers, and drivers and delivery persons, risking their lives for us.

More specifically, nearly 2 million immigrants care for COVID-19 patients, and 27,000 people with DACA work in health care. These immigrants are essential now and will be essential in our recovery. To deny support for these immigrant workers and communities would be a betrayal of our values and a danger to our health.  

Immigration status shouldn't be a death sentence, but if Congress doesn't act soon, it will continue. Congress has repeatedly failed to ensure access to testing and treatment for tens of millions of people, including some of our nation's largest and most vulnerable populations.

Many green card holders have been left out, in addition to DACA recipients, those with Temporary Protected Status, victims of crimes and domestic violence survivors (U visa holders), undocumented immigrants, and so many more.

In New York alone, there are 725,000 undocumented immigrants and 28,910 DACA recipients who might have been left out of this critical care if the state had not stepped in to ensure coverage. Undoubtedly, this access to care helped New York get a handle on the virus during this critical moment. Even the public understands it: Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that the federal government must provide medical care to undocumented immigrants with COVID-19. Until we all have access to care, we all are at risk.

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People with limited access to testing and treatment are often left to seek care through a patchwork of local community health centers — many of which face shortages and lack adequate COVID-19 testing capacity — or to hope that their statelike New York, will provide testing and treatment to those not covered by Congress' relief packages. But these options are limited, adding to fear and confusion, and creating another barrier for people to access vital testing and treatment services. 

We are fighting for health equity and defending everyone's rights to access the quality care they deserve. Since the pandemic hit, we have outlined the crucial need to keep the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of hospitals. We have called out the government for using COVID-19 as an excuse to abandon asylum seekers. But we can't fight this pandemic alone. We need to hold Congress accountable and demand that members demonstrate the leadership necessary to protect our health and guide this nation through this unprecedented public health crisis. 

Excluding millions of immigrants from accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment is a systemic failure, a glaring omission that will have increasingly disastrous consequences. Put, if we continue to leave anyone out of COVID-related care, the United States will not recover. We need Congress to issue a national policy in response to this national crisis, beginning with Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

Sen. Schumer is at the forefront of the negotiations for the impending relief package, and we are counting on him to advocate for the health and survival of people all over the country. We cannot afford to let this virus spread without a clear, equitable, evidence-based national response. It is time for Sen. Schumer, Congress, and the federal government to lead in this national crisis. The next bill must ensure everyone, regardless of immigration status, has access to testing and treatment under emergency Medicaid. This virus threatens us all. If we leave anyone behind, we are all at risk. But if we act now, we can ensure our mutual survival and prosperity as a nation.

Dr. Joseph Shin is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine/Cornell Center for Health Equity and a medical expert with Physicians for Human Rights.