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Sen. Patty Murray’s new bill aims to learn COVID-19 lessons, prepare for future pandemics

People walk outside the U.S. Capitol building. The Senate Health Committee plans to launch a review of the nation's handling of the pandemic.   (Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – New bipartisan legislation from the leaders of the Senate Health Committee aims to review the United States’ response to COVID-19 and overhaul the nation’s public health system to prepare for the next pandemic.

Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the panel, unveiled a draft bill Jan. 25 along with top GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina that would establish an independent task force to examine the origin of the virus and how federal, state and local governments have responded to it. It would also seek to improve coordination between public health agencies and shore up the supply of vaccines, masks and other supplies.

“Our country has been through a lot in the last two years and we believe that we owe it to everyone who is working so hard to get us through this to take every step we can to make sure that we are never in this situation again,” Murray said in an interview. “We all recognize that the chances of going through another pandemic are real and we want to make sure we learn the lessons from the past, apply them and be more prepared for the next one.”

The PREVENT Pandemics Act would also require the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, to be approved by the Senate before taking office, a hurdle that already applies to other top government jobs. Murray said that provision would help ensure “a CDC director that is accountable to the people of this country,” without specifically criticizing current CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

Murray and Burr released the “discussion draft” of the bill, inviting experts and other lawmakers to suggest changes, at a time when public health officials are debating whether the nation is ready to enter a new phase of the pandemic and begin treating the virus as an endemic threat Americans will have to live with. Cases have declined nationwide as a surge driven by the highly infectious omicron variant has subsided, yet the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 eclipsed 900,000 on Friday.

While Americans remain divided in their response to the pandemic, Murray said she hoped the fact she and Burr crafted the legislation together will ensure its success.

“This pandemic is bipartisan,” Murray said. “It has hit everyone, and it is important that we recognize that together as a country we have to look and see what the challenges are and fix them.”

“I’m very proud Sen. Burr and I have been able to be working on this in a bipartisan way, because not only will that help us pass it but it will help it be better accepted across the country.”

Murray’s legislation could complement another bipartisan bill – introduced last June by Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Democratic counterpart Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey – aimed at improving international coordination in response to future pandemics.

“This pandemic isn’t the first to threaten the American people, and it won’t be the last,” Risch said in a June 28 statement. “We need to enact stronger prevention and preparedness measures now if we want to get ahead of the next crisis.”

Risch’s bill aims to address the current pandemic – directing the State Department to come up with a strategy to expand vaccine access overseas, for instance, and freeing up foreign assistance funds to combat the virus – and to prepare for the next one.

It would clarify which agencies are responsible for preparing for global health crises and designate a committee within the National Security Council to coordinate the U.S. government’s response to pandemics and other disasters, while also establishing a global fund to improve pandemic preparedness.

Murray’s legislation, meanwhile, focuses on what the U.S. government can do within its own borders to bolster public health infrastructure that has been strained by the pandemic.

At the center of the proposal is the task force, akin to the bipartisan commission Congress established to investigate the 9/11 terror attacks. Its members would be appointed by leaders of both parties in Congress, and it would be required to submit an interim report after six months and a final report after a year.

Murray raised the idea of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the pandemic as early as March 2020, not long after Washington saw the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States.

Another provision would require the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department to set up an advisory committee to recommend ways to combat misinformation and clearly communicate accurate information and public health guidance, Murray said.

“Clearly one of the lessons we have learned from this pandemic is communications, and making clear what guidances are, is really important to making sure that people accept it,” she said.

Murray said she plans to hold a hearing on the legislation this month and move forward with a committee markup in the coming weeks, paving the way for swift passage this year.