While many of us may be weary of writing pandemic stories, journalists should continue covering pandemic threats; another one could be brewing because of climate change, changing global security conditions and the potential for bioterrorism, public health experts say.
“We need to be prepared for something that is worse than COVID,” Tom Inglesby, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said at a March 31 Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness & Health Security briefing for lawmakers’ staff and media.
One way to keep writing about pandemics is to cover this year’s Congressional debate on the Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPA) — one of the few must-pass measures on Congress’s plate that would authorize continued funding of many of the federal government’s efforts to prepare for another pandemic, reported Lauren Clasen for Roll Call.
Among many things, the bill would direct funding for hospital preparedness, surge capacity for medical personnel in an emergency public health situation and investment in medical treatments for potential pandemic threats — all areas ripe with news hooks for stories.
For example, the American Hospital Association, which represents 5,000 of the nation’s hospitals and health systems, urged Congress to support the PAHPA bill to help replenish funds to shore up hospital resources in preparation for future public health emergencies. Localize this story by writing about how and why federal hospital preparedness dollars would be used to prepare for another public health emergency and what it would mean if those funds weren’t available. You can find American Hospital Association media contacts here.
A business story could focus on how the Health and Human Services Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR) is working to fund domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gloves, to prevent the spread of contagious infectious respiratory diseases.
During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were almost no domestic producers of PPE, and health care providers and businesses had to wait for supplies from other countries. Last year, the Biden administration elevated ASPR to an operational role to make sure the nation’s medical supply chain — like PPE’s — are adequate. The agency’s continuing operational authority is under consideration as part of PAHPA’s reauthorization. The media contact at ASPR is Elleen Kane. Her email address is Elleen.Kane@hhs.gov.
“Please don’t let PAHPA expire,” former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during the March 31 steering committee briefing. She added that COVID-19 showed the country that “health crises will topple our economy.”
A national angle to consider is how the White House organizes federal leadership for pandemic response in the future. Under a law passed at the end of 2022, the White House was directed by Congress to create a permanent office of pandemic preparedness and response policy, so that global health threats remain a top priority for any administration. Before the pandemic, every president, beginning with Bill Clinton, had a revolving door of global health advisors hired to respond to a disease threat;the position was downgraded or abandoned when the threat had passed.
STAT reported on April 6 that the structure of the new office is “under review,” but nothing has been created yet. With the public health emergency ending on May 11, the White House’s current COVID-19 Response Coordinator, Ashish Jha, M.D., M.P.H., is likely to leave and return to Brown University where he was dean of public health before joining the administration and the response team will be disbanded.
“The problem is that no one really wants to think about pandemics between when they occur,” Ken Bernard, who worked in biodefense policy in both the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses, told STAT.
But the White House is legally required to create a new pandemic office. For a media contact, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a reporter tip from when I covered Congress and the White House: White House press often won’t answer questions directly. I recommend calling the press office of the lawmaker overseeing a policy issue. In this case, you would contact Washington state’s U.S. Senator Patty Murray. Her communications director is Amir Avin, who can reached at 202-224-2621. Murray is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the purse strings of the federal government.