We know from centuries of human history — and two years with COVID — that viruses don’t surrender easily. They morph in unpredictable ways. The plague of the Black Death in 14th Century Europe lasted more than a half dozen years — and reappeared periodically into the 19th Century. There were four waves of the Spanish flu in the early 20th Century.
We’ve already had more than four surges and three significant variants of COVID. Will this winter’s omicron be the last? Not likely.
The Maryland legislature understood this. That’s why we passed the Testing, Tracing, and Vaccination Act of 2021, requiring science and experience-based planning to keep us safe — not just now, but in future years. The Senate passed it unanimously and the House by a margin of more than four to one. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it, and we overrode his veto in December. We are now introducing a bill to update it.
In the new year, Maryland needs to hope for the best and plan for the worst by further investing in prevention and preparation.
First, we need affordable testing on demand for as long as it takes. That means home testing kits, on-site PCR testing, and an early embrace of new home testing technologies that are more conclusive. All testing should be covered by health insurance and, for the uninsured, covered by the government. The short-term cost will be small compared to the cost of sick workers, closed businesses and schools, and lost loved ones.
Second, we need real time tracking of exposures in nursing homes and other congregate care locations, and, as this surge recedes, robust tracing to help protect those exposed.
Third, to prevent spread, promotion of improved air filtering and N95 masks are important.
Fourth, COVID vaccines should be mandatory for kids in schools, as they have been for measles, polio and other diseases for decades.
Fifth, we need to plan for downside risks by stockpiling tests, vaccines and treatment pills. We need a public health reserve corps, like the U.S. military reserves, trained in testing, tracing and vaccinating, ready to respond in real time. It is better to contract for more tests and vaccines than to lose more jobs and more loved ones.
Sixth, we know that vaccine hesitancy has been a barrier to vaccine rollouts in many communities. We need to highlight vaccine support less from medical experts and more from trusted voices within these vaccine-hesitant groups — union leaders, celebrities, small business owners, social media influencers, preachers and family members.
Seventh, direct marketing of vaccination should be scaled up dramatically:
- Health departments and their community partners know who has received the first dose; they should relentlessly contact those who haven’t received a second vaccination and a booster shot;
- All testing sites, including pharmacies, should have walk-in, on-the-spot vaccinations;
- All schools should provide vaccinations on-site during the school day.
Eighth, COVID treatment pills are here. Health departments should work with hospitals, doctors, drugstores and other outlets immediately to make sure that COVID treatments are available to everyone as soon as they arrive. Everyone with a positive test should be connected by telehealth with a doctor to prescribe treatment. This time, let’s plan ahead instead of playing catch-up as we did with vaccinations a year ago.
Last, all organizations — including health providers, schools, retailers, nursing homes and the legislature — need to embrace, not reject, what we’ve learned from this crisis, both to minimize short-term disruption and, as President Joe Biden says, to build back better. We know that telemedicine, online retail, telework and online education have worked for many. Even in our legislative work, allowing the public to testify on ZOOM instead of having to drive to Annapolis, find a parking place and wait hours in committee rooms was a big victory for ordinary people. It has made our democracy and our families’ health safer. Let’s make it permanent.
All of this is common sense — and affordable. President Biden, Congress and the Maryland legislature have already provided billions of dollars to protect our health and economy. If there is proven need for even more public investment (which we doubt), we’ll fight for it from the state’s $4 billion budget surplus. But based on the past two years, money isn’t the problem; vision, planning and management is.
As we enter Maryland’s third year of the COVID crisis, it’s time to up our game.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (email@example.com) represent northern Prince George’s and Western Anne Arundel Counties and serve on the legislature’s Joint COVID Oversight Workgroup.