Dr. Ezike testifies before special COVID-19 congressional subcommittee

Published: Dec. 14, 2022 at 6:55 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - The Congressional Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis submitted its final report Wednesday to help prepare for and prevent the next public health emergency. A familiar public figure from Illinois also testified during the subcommittee’s final hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Former IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike was asked to provide her perspective on how to best address the ongoing pandemic. Ezike said COVID-19 has highlighted the need for public health departments to focus more attention on health equity. She noted that thousands of people hospitalized for COVID-19 complications in Illinois suffered from underlying chronic conditions.

Ezike stressed that this pandemic has widened the life expectancy gap between White communities and communities of color. She said the country needs to build up and maintain the public health workforce to help people before another pandemic takes place.

“Aggressive intentional action through partnerships and collaboration is essential to strengthen our public health infrastructure and make health equity a concrete tangible action instead of a feel-good catchphrase,” Ezike said.

The subcommittee submitted 30 recommendations to mitigate ongoing risks still posed by COVID-19 and make critical investments in the country’s public health and economic relief infrastructure. Ezike said the United States also needs continuous investments to address the social determinants of health.

“We saw an issue regarding retail pharmacies that were a major source of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations,” Ezike said. “But Black and brown neighborhoods have fewer retail pharmacies, making it more difficult for those living there to access those resources and get the care they needed. We need continued community investment to address needs that impact peoples’ health, jobs, housing, healthy food, neighborhood safety, and transportation.”

Ezike said the United States should have helped states better inform the public about how they could protect themselves from COVID-19 early into the pandemic. The former director said many people contracted the virus because contact tracing and other efforts were implemented slowly. Ezike argued that tackling health inequities should also involve dealing with the baseline chronic diseases that are common in Black and brown communities.

“We need flexible funding for state, territorial, and public health agencies. Special funding is also critical to keep the safety-net hospitals running,” Ezike said. “And we want to partner with our public health agencies for the betterment and the creation of healthier communities.”

Ezike is currently the President and CEO of Sinai Chicago, one of the city’s largest safety-net hospitals serving low-income neighborhoods and Medicaid patients.

The subcommittee recommended that the country increase uptake of the COVID-19 bivalent booster vaccines through a new targeted campaign. They wrote that the campaign could prevent thousands of deaths and hospitalizations and save billions of dollars in medical costs. The committee also hopes the United States can accelerate the development of pan-coronavirus vaccines, nasal vaccines, and anti-viral treatments to address the evolution of COVID-19 variants.

Several experts testifying Wednesday said that the country should modernize public health data systems at all levels to make them more dynamic and interoperable. They also said that Congress should develop procedures and training to protect scientific decision-making at federal agencies from political interference.

The 218-page report suggests that lawmakers should pass legislation to ensure people living with Long COVID can receive the critical healthcare services they need. The subcommittee also stated that the United States should expedite and fund clinical treatment trials and educate healthcare professionals and the public about Long COVID.

However, the subcommittee also focused on solutions to address the rampant fraud found within emergency federal relief for Americans. They argued that the country should assess and improve the federal government’s ability to distribute relief equitably, especially for Americans with low income who are more vulnerable to public health emergencies. The subcommittee recommended that relief programs implemented by private-sector institutions should prioritize businesses or workers who lack other means of accessing credit.

Rebecca Dixon, the Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, told lawmakers that Congress must enact permanent reforms that establish minimum federal standards for eligibility, access, benefit duration, and adequacy. She explained that Congress should also appropriate sufficient administrative funding to strengthen the unemployment insurance infrastructure on the state and federal levels.

“Congress should waste no time enacting paid sick leave and family leave that applies to all workers,” Dixon said. “The pandemic proved the necessity of a strong UI program and paid sick and medical leave and how instrumental they are to alleviating poverty and propping up businesses and communities.”

The subcommittee noted that lawmakers should ensure the IRS continues to have resources to surge the processing of partial tax transcripts to prevent fraud and ensure integrity in the Small Business Association’s economic injury disaster loan program. Members also hope to see proactive fraud controls in future relief programs, including rigorous vetting and oversight of private sector entities responsible for administering the programs and safeguarding taxpayer dollars.

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