February 10, 2022 / Mark Ames

What’s Next for Pandemic Preparedness in Congress?

When the next pandemic strikes, we want to be better prepared, but how can we achieve that state of readiness? Members of Congress are tackling that question now with a new bill that has one fleetingly rare feature in Washington, D.C.—it’s bipartisan.

Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), both leaders of the influential Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, recently proposed a new bill cleverly titled the Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act (PREVENT Pandemics Act). The draft legislation is an impressive compilation of public policies intended to improve pandemic preparedness; however, for all its 205 pages, there are several missing pieces, which represent opportunities for improvement. Stepping in to fill those gaps, AIHA recently provided several recommendations drawn from our publications, including the second edition of The Role of the Industrial Hygienist in a Pandemic (PDF).

The PREVENT Pandemics Act contains five major titles (sections) that focus on federal leadership, state and local readiness, public health emergency response, improving data quality, accelerating research, strengthening the supply chain, and preparing to remedy shortages of medical supplies. You can find a section-by-section summary of the draft bill on the HELP Committee website (PDF).

One vital missing piece of improving pandemic preparedness is a focus on the workplace. As AIHA states in our comments (PDF):

Currently, the bill lacks specific language addressing the needs and responsibilities of employers and employees. While the draft legislation does mention health workers, who are critically important, many more workers in other industries are also impacted by pandemics and should thus be added as focal points of this legislation.

We go on to recommend that OSHA issue an infectious disease standard within six months after the PREVENT Pandemics Act becomes law, which isn’t a given. We also recommend that for future pandemics involving viral respiratory pathogens, aerosol inhalation should be recognized as the primary mode of transmission and appropriate controls be required to control it.

Additional research is needed on workplace interventions to prevent and control the spread of pandemic agents. AIHA recommends that NIOSH serve as the federal lead in meeting this need as part of a large effort, and that additional funding be provided to bridge research gaps.

Infectious disease surveillance systems are in need of an upgrade; AIHA recommends that the PREVENT Pandemics Act “should be written to have a national standard and requirement to track cases by industry and occupation in surveillance systems.” We are concerned that the role of the workplace in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has been downplayed in several published reports. Our comments contend that focusing on industry and occupation will help prevent and limit the spread of pandemic agents.

AIHA is urging members of Congress to rely more on the expertise of industrial hygienists and related professionals as the federal government develops infectious disease standards and guidelines.

Employers and workers need assistance. AIHA recommends that the PREVENT Pandemics Act direct funding to help states assist employers, building operators, workers, and related stakeholders conduct risk assessments and implement written infectious disease prevention and control programs.

The full list of our recommendations is available as a PDF download from the AIHA website.

While it is unclear whether the PREVENT Pandemics Act will make it through the current partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, the fact that the bill is supported by influential leaders from both parties who reached out to stakeholders like AIHA for recommendations on how the bill can be improved is a hopeful sign.

If you’d like to stay up to date on the latest developments in government relations, please consider joining AIHA’s Government Relations Committee.

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.


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