Greater than a yr after widespread COVID-19 vaccine availability in the USA, points associated to vaccines, together with the necessity for extra boosters, the event of variant-specific doses, vaccines for youngsters beneath 5, and points of world availability, proceed to be within the headlines. Congress has struggled in current months to approve extra funds for vaccines, testing, and therapeutics—however legislating isn’t the one tactic the Home and Senate have to answer the continuing disaster. Hearings, too, play an vital function.
Information collected as a part of Brookings’s on-going work on congressional oversight helps put these efforts in perspective. In 2021, roughly 5% of congressional hearings throughout the Home and Senate targeted on a health-related matter; that is truly barely decrease than the equal figures within the Home in 2019 (8%) and 2020 (11%). Notably, nonetheless, because the vaccine started rolling out and People had the selection to get inoculated in opposition to COVID-19, Congress responded by focusing closely on the problem. In 2021, 32, or one-third, of all health-related hearings contained a substantive concentrate on matters associated to vaccines. (“Vaccine-related” hearings have been these during which no less than a number of testimonies contained a substantive concentrate on COVID-19 vaccinations.) Within the Home, over a 3rd of those hearings have been held by the Choose Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Disaster, which was created close to the start of the pandemic in April 2020. Within the Senate, over half of all vaccine-related hearings have been held by the Committee on Well being, Training, Labor, and Pensions.
A deeper have a look at vaccine-related hearings offers perception into how Congress oversaw the event and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. All 32 vaccine-related hearings thought-about a number of of the next subtopics: vaccine improvement, distribution and rollout, and vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine improvement was mentioned in 13 hearings, which analyzed scientific trials and efficacy of the vaccine to fight COVID-19 and its rising variants. Even after the vaccine’s preliminary emergency authorization, improvement hearings continued to discover the vaccine’s resistance to new strains of the virus, the potential want for booster pictures, and whether or not the vaccine was protected for youngsters.
Skepticism concerning the vaccine was one other space of focus, with the Home and Senate holding a mixed whole of 15 hearings on vaccine hesitancy. In these hearings, the committees targeted on the unfold of misinformation and methods to construct vaccine confidence amongst skeptical People. Vaccine distribution was mentioned in 27 hearings, with subtopics together with the manufacturing and provide of accessible vaccines, challenges and successes with uptake, and obstacles to vaccine entry. Congress additionally explored vaccine fairness in gentle of proof that minority teams are much less more likely to be vaccinated and extra more likely to get severely ailing from contracting COVID-19. Accordingly, 10 hearings addressed uptake obstacles in sure demographics and the way to meet the wants of susceptible communities in vaccine schooling and messaging.
9 of the 32 vaccine hearings concerned congressional oversight of the manager department—three within the Home and 6 within the Senate. These hearings primarily targeted on the federal authorities’s COVID-19 response, with most oversight inspecting vaccine improvement and distribution. Solely a handful of hearings thought-about vaccine-related matters on the state and native ranges. In early February, Congress held one listening to to discover vaccine uptake on the state degree, calling witnesses from states’ public well being departments. One other February listening to featured witnesses from all the most important vaccine firms—Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, AstraZeneca, and Novavax—during which testimonies defined how the vaccine was developed and carried out in scientific trials.
Vaccine-related hearings featured 131 separate testimonies and 112 particular person witnesses, with a handful of witnesses testifying greater than as soon as. In a time characterised by uncertainty concerning the virus and the efficacy of vaccines, Congress relied closely on public well being officers to clarify the advantages and challenges associated to implementing COVID-19 vaccinations. Although solely 15% of whole witnesses have been public well being officers, family names equivalent to NIH Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testified a number of occasions, every showing in seven hearings. They have been adopted by FDA Performing Commissioner Janet Woodcock and CDC Director Dr. Peter Marks, each of whom testified in one-third of all federal oversight hearings. 18 of the 32 vaccine hearings featured no less than one public well being official, and a fourth of whole testimonies got here from public well being officers in 2021.
Congress additionally known as on students and scientists to clarify the intricacies of the virus and its unfold, with a 3rd of whole witnesses representing tutorial witnesses. Although not technically public well being officers who serve within the authorities, these witnesses offered essential medical experience, usually holding M.D.s or Ph.Ds. Very similar to public well being officers, tutorial witnesses testified about methods to fight the virus and the power to mitigate its unfold via vaccinations. Different key witnesses included present and former federal authorities staff with health-related positions, equivalent to Authorities Accountability Workplace Director of Well being Care John Dicken, former Surgeon Basic Jerome Adams, and different former federal officers from HHS. Whether or not listening to from public well being officers or students, Congress’s strategy to public well being required a broad vary of health-related witnesses to make clear issues concerning the vaccine.
Different witnesses in vaccine-related hearings included well being care employees (12), people from advocacy teams (10), people representing non-public firms (9), representatives from skilled associations (6), non-public residents (4), and state and native authorities officers (2). Testimonies from well being care professionals have been particularly vital as a result of they recognized the challenges that frontline employees have been dealing with in hospitals and healthcare facilities. One witness, a nursing assistant, mentioned widespread reluctance amongst nursing employees to get vaccinated. One other witness, a Chief Strategic Integration and Well being Fairness Officer at a hospital, testified about efforts to audit medical information to find out sufferers who had missed preventative screenings and create an on-site vaccination clinic on the hospital. Their views highlighted the essential healthcare gaps that had an impression on vaccine uptake.
As of this writing, Congress is constant to debate extra COVID-related spending that the White Home says is required to make sure widespread availability of a subsequent technology shot, and efforts to supervise the approval of vaccines for younger youngsters proceed as properly. Vaccination, then, is more likely to stay on Congress’s listening to agenda within the months to return.