On Friday, President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency under the National Emergencies Act and invoked the Stafford Act, measures that could provide a much needed lifeline for ill-prepared and underfunded state and local health agencies at the front lines of the pandemic. The actions unlock $42 billion from the Disaster Emergency Relief Fund, and allows the President to ease restrictions on nursing home admissions, end limits on hospital length of stays, facilitate telehealth, and waive licensure requirements so that health workers could be deployed to hard hit areas. Further, in combination with the earlier declaration of a public health emergency, Friday’s declaration will make it easier for people to access federal assistance programs like Medicaid and Medicare, a long overdue step. President Trump also announced private sector partnerships that, he says, will lead to 1.4 million new COVID-19 tests by this week, and 5 million by next month, and widespread drive-through testing. If the testing availability predictions prove accurate, we can finally begin to implement the aggressive, comprehensive testing that is a core part of the necessary response, and should have started weeks ago. If instead, President Trump’s testing promises prove baseless, COVID-19 will become even more entrenched, and many Americans may needlessly die.
Aside from free and widespread testing, we need a social safety net for the Americans – especially our most vulnerable – including who are practicing responsible social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, or may become ill, or need to stay away from work to care for family members, whether children whose schools are closed or family members who are ill. Passed by the House on Saturday, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act would provide free COVID-19 testing, paid emergency sick leave, enhanced Unemployment insurance, strengthened food insecurity initiatives, and increased Medicaid funding for states. More protections are needed, including guarantees that immigrants, regardless of status, can access care, and that not only testing, but also treatments, will be free, so costs are no obstacle to everyone getting the care they need.
The emergency sick leave provisions are dangerously narrow, excluding large employers and enabling small employers to receive hardship exemptions, all but gutting this essential element of the COVID-19 response. It is a travesty that only 20% of American workers are guaranteed sick leave under the House legislation. We cannot compromise away the health of economically vulnerable populations, putting them, and all of us, at greater risk. Until every American knows they can stay home if they feel sick, there will be not only a giant loophole in this legislation, but also in our national response to COVID-19.
The Senate must close this loophole and add the additional protections. Congress must then immediately pass this legislation and the President sign it. Every day lost will mean more infections and make COVID-19 only harder to control.