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As new Omicron variant looms, White House urges Congress to restore COVID-19 funding

The Canadian Press logoThe Canadian Press 3/15/2022
© Provided by The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON — With inflation spiralling, gas prices soaring and the soil of Ukraine now sown with the seeds of another great-powers conflict, the White House issued a pointed reminder Tuesday about another international crisis the United States isn't quite done with yet: COVID-19. 

Senior Biden administration officials have put Congress on notice that the pandemic is still far from over around the world, including in the U.S., and are urging Republican lawmakers to rethink the decision last week to abruptly shut off the funding tap.

They amped up the pressure Tuesday by briefing journalists on background on the subject, a tactic the White House generally only turns to when they're not getting through to their rivals on Capitol Hill — quite literally, in this case. 

"There's a number of Republicans who won't even return our phone calls about the impact of the lack of COVID funding and how that will impact their constituents," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. 

"What we're trying to do is really be very clear and direct about what the impacts will be. Some of these programs — funding for treatments for the immunocompromised, providing free tests and masks, providing free boosters and vaccines — will impact millions of Americans potentially in this country, regardless of their partisan affiliation."

The $15.6 billion in funding had been largely agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans, and was to be included in the appropriations bill needed to avert a government shutdown — an issue that's become a regular fixture in a Washington defined by perennial political divisions.

But Democrats balked at the last minute, upset by Republican plans to claw back unspent but allocated COVID-19 relief funds to cover the cost. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, up against the deadline, excised the package in order to get the $1.5-trillion bill to the desk of President Joe Biden, who signed it Tuesday. 

As a result, the original White House ask for $22.5 billion to keep the COVID-19 response alive has so far gone unaddressed on Capitol Hill. 

"With cases rising abroad, scientific and medical experts have been clear that in the next couple of months there could be increasing cases of COVID-19 here in the U.S as well," the White House said in a statement. 


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"Failure to fund these efforts now will have severe consequences as we will not be equipped to deal with a future surge. Waiting to provide funding once we're in a surge will be too late."

Almost two years to the day since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in the first place, there are troubling signs of that surge brewing overseas. 

Cases of a newly mutated form of the Omicron variant have spiked dramatically in China, where the city of Shenzhen, a technology hub of some 17 million people near Hong Kong, is just one of several that is back in lockdown mode.

The country reported 5,280 new cases Tuesday, including asymptomatic ones — more than twice the previous day's new caseload and China's highest daily tally of the pandemic to date, a striking total in a part of the world that has taken a zero-COVID approach to managing the crisis. 

The spike, attributed to a new mutation of the already-virulent Omicron variant, is likely to worsen supply-chain issues around the world as well. Shenzhen is home to several tech manufacturers, including Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, which has suspended operations.  

Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate committee approved bipartisan plans Tuesday for a new approach to public health that would use the experience of COVID-19 to redesign the way the country responded to the crisis. 

"We owe it to everyone who has worked so hard to address the challenges of this pandemic to make sure (that) we are never in a situation like this again," said Washington Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the health committee. 

The bill, if passed, would investigate the U.S. response to the pandemic and recommend a new approach, and also establish the medical research agency Biden called for in his state of the union speech. 

It would also create a pandemic response agency in the White House similar to the health unit established under former president Barack Obama that was disbanded during the Trump administration. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2022.

— With files from The Associated Press 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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