Richmond Times-Dispatch: With virus spiking and economy in peril, push for vaccine, stimulus package intensifies

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Virginia could receive the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year, but some business and political leaders warn that the current Congress must pass an emergency relief package to help the state weather a long-feared winter spike in the pandemic until a vaccine is generally available sometime next year.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, re-elected last week to a second term representing a district anchored in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, urged President Donald Trump and congressional leaders on Thursday to move swiftly to provide additional resources for responding to the pandemic and aid to struggling families and businesses.

“Now more than ever, it is urgent that we come together to build a targeted, timely relief package that avoids partisan posturing and instead prioritizes combating our national public health emergency, addressing catastrophic unemployment rates, and protecting the security of the next generation,” Spanberger wrote in a letter to Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

JB Holston, executive director of the Greater Washington Partnership, said a new emergency package should include at least $75 billion for “fast, frequent, asymptomatic testing” for the coronavirus and contact tracing to allow schools and businesses to open safely.

“We don’t have a focus on the things we can do which the pandemic is requiring,” warned Holston, who was dean of engineering and computer sciences at the University of Denver before joining the regional partnership led by business executives from Richmond to Baltimore. “It’s not just high risk. It’s literally causing damage across the country.”

Holston, a member of a COVID-19 response team in Colorado, said in an interview: “We’re on track for 1,500 deaths a day over the next 70 days if we don’t do any more than we’re doing. That’s 100,000 deaths — two Vietnams — in the next 70 days.”

His warning comes days after what he called the “clearly good news” that the Pfizer pharmaceutical company and BioNTech, a German research company, had achieved 90% effectiveness in ongoing clinical trials of a vaccine that could begin to be distributed by late December if approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Phase 3 clinical trial of the vaccine’s efficacy is being conducted at 150 sites in six countries and 39 states, including the Virginia Research Center, at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center in Chesterfield County.

Next steps on vaccine

Holston estimates that the initial 50 million doses of the two-dose vaccine that Pfizer produces in the United States would include about 300,000 doses for Virginia, or enough for 150,000 people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with 21 days between shots.

The initial phase of vaccination likely would go to health care workers and emergency first responders at high risk of infection, including those employed in nursing homes and home health settings, under guidelines the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued last month.

The Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine also recommends a “vulnerability index” for distributing the vaccine to populations that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as Blacks and Hispanics, because of underlying health inequities.

“The report will likely inform the next step of priority population recommendations” for receiving the vaccine, said Christy Gray, director of the Division of Immunization at the Virginia Department of Health.

The process would begin with the expected completion of clinical trials of the mRNA-based vaccine later this month by Pfizer and BioNTech, followed by FDA review for emergency use. If approved by the FDA, the vaccine study data would be reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to ensure the new vaccine’s effectiveness and safety for different populations. The committee ultimately would determine the recommended priority populations.

Initially, it would not be recommended for children or pregnant women because it hasn’t been tested on them, Gray said. Similarly, she said the CDC advisory committee would consider whether the data shows that the vaccine would be effective for older people, including those in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“It’s really going to depend on what the data show,” Gray said.

Virginia health officials are working with their counterparts in Maryland and the District of Columbia for a coordinated regional approach to administering the Pfizer vaccine or other potential vaccines that the federal government is pushing for development and distribution on a fast track to bring the pandemic under control.

“We’re planning for different scenarios,” Gray said, referring to the logistics of shipping, storing and distributing the vaccine.

Region’s governments

Holston called for governments in the region to “harmonize” their distribution plans and promised that businesses would help a coordinated communication campaign to encourage people to take the vaccine when it is available to them.

“It’s what we should have done with masks all along,” he said, referring to the uneven state approaches to encouraging or requiring face masks to control the spread of the highly communicable coronavirus disease.

“Masks are good, vaccines are good, testing should be available for all on a frequent basis,” Holston said.

Success will depend on more aid from the federal government, especially for schools to reopen safely and allow parents to return to their workplaces, he said. Businesses also need help soon to survive until vaccines are distributed widely enough to bring the pandemic under control.

“The longer we wait to provide critical support, especially for small businesses, the harder it’s going to be to recover,” Holston said.

Relief package

Spanberger conveys a similar urgency in her letter to Trump and congressional leaders.

She calls for enhanced unemployment benefits for those still out of work because of the pandemic and additional grants or loans to small businesses to survive a winter that could be difficult because of a diminished holiday shopping and tourism season.

“Similarly, as the winter approaches, public health officials have warned that outbreaks of this virus may significantly worsen over the next few months,” Spanberger said. “While there have been encouraging signs in the search for a vaccine, [Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and other leading public health experts have warned that the distribution of a vaccine, once approved for emergency use by the FDA, could take months.”

She urged the leaders of both parties to put aside partisan differences to reach a deal on emergency relief before the end of the year.

“The campaign is over, and now is the time to heal,” Spanberger said. “We must not allow partisan posturing to stand in the way of the relief Americans so desperately need.”

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