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Why Congress must act now to avoid more ‘horrific milestones’ in pandemic

Unless more federal aid is approved soon, COVID-19 relief measures like unemployment assistance will expire by Christmas. More than 10 million jobs have been lost since the pandemic began, and many Americans are facing food and housing insecurity. Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the pandemic’s toll on public health and economic wellbeing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Late today, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, said that Pfizer is expected to file tomorrow for emergency approval of its new COVID vaccine.

    As the pandemic's impact grows, there was word today that congressional leaders may resume talks on a deal for COVID relief and assistance. But unless a new bill is approved soon, several relief measures, including unemployment assistance, will expire by Christmas. More than 10 million jobs have been lost since the pandemic began.

    Dr. Richard Besser wrote about COVID's toll on public health and economic well-being today in a USA Today piece. It was titled "The Pandemic Isn't Pausing. The U.S. Shouldn't Either."

    He is a former acting director of the CDC. He is also president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

    And, for the record, the foundation is a "NewsHour" funder.

    Dr. Rich Besser, thank you so much for joining us again.

    For months, we have been hearing these warnings, don't travel, be careful, this pandemic is getting worse. But people appear to be planning to travel, to gather in large groups over Thanksgiving. Major warnings today from the CDC and other federal agencies.

    How worried are you that people are just not listening?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well, Judy, I'm extremely worried. This is a worst-case scenario.

    We have the holidays here at a time when respiratory viruses thrive. They love cold weather. They love low humidity. And we have a nation that has not come together around what needs to be done to control this.

    You know, it's clear that our personal actions, wearing masks, keeping apart from each other, washing our hands, has a big impact. But it's also clear that people need resources from Congress in order to be able to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

    You know, as your reporter was showing, this pandemic is having disparate impact on communities of color, hitting them at four times or more of the rates of white communities. And if we want to turn the tide on this, people need money in their pockets, they need protection from eviction or mortgage foreclosure.

    There are too many people in America who have to decide every day whether they go to work to put food on the table and rent or they stay home to protect themselves, their families and communities. And that will take more than people wearing masks. That takes hard, fast action from Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The piece you wrote today, as we mentioned, you said the actions of government and individuals will likely determine how many people die and what our society values.

    So, you're saying a lot of the responsibility here lies with Congress, but it's also with people, with individual people.

  • Richard Besser:

    That's right, what we individually do.

    You know, if we were able to rally around wearing masks, we would see a dramatic decline in cases. If we were driven by science — you know, I'm seeing around the country a lot of quick movement to close schools. I'm a pediatrician and a parent. And I know how important in-classroom learning is.

    And there's so many communities that have been able to do that effectively. When you look at Europe, they are viewing schools as an essential service, and they're closing everything else that's necessary in order to protect the ability for children to go to school safely and for teachers and staff in those schools to have the resources they need, so they can do that safely.

    But, rather than closing bars, moving restaurants to pickup delivery, canceling some of the indoor activities that we know are at risk, we're reflexively and quickly closing down schools in places where the data aren't showing that's a risk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's go back to what you were saying a moment ago about the federal government, about Congress, and its role.

  • Richard Besser:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think it's most urgent that Congress do? As we know, it's been months since there has been any movement in the Congress on aid around this pandemic.

    What do you think is most important that they get done?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well, there are several things.

    They need to put in place immediately a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures. It's estimated that there are tens of millions of people in January who are at risk of becoming homeless, being evicted in the middle of winter, in the middle of a raging pandemic.

    They need to put money in people's pockets. We saw in the spring how valuable that was for people to meet their essential needs, but also to be able to stay home if they weren't feeling well and thought they might have COVID.

    They need to extend unemployment benefits and increase the unemployment benefits, so those people who aren't working have the resources they need to protect themselves and their families. They need to ensure that everyone has sick leave and family medical leave.

    These are things that, in many countries, are the basics. And they also need to provide protection for small businesses. The PPP program, the Payroll Production Program, needs to be invigorated and the resources needs to be there. And our states desperately need money.

    Unlike the federal government, our states need to balance their budget. And without millions and millions dollars to states, states are going to have to make decisions as to whether they fully fund Medicaid, whether they fully fund their school systems, whether they fully fund their housing programs.

    Those programs are desperately needed now. But without federal dollars, state governments will have to make decisions that you never want to see them have to make.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what would you say to lawmakers who say, well, we put a lot of money — we tried to put a lot of money together, we tried to send it out the door months ago, some of it, a lot of it hasn't been spent yet, we don't want to rush into doing something?

    What do you say to them?

  • Richard Besser:

    What I would say to them is look at the number 250,000, 250,000 deaths, and recognize that, by the end of the year, we could be talking about 300,000 deaths, and recognize that what you do right now could have a dramatic difference.

    I am so optimistic, based on this vaccine news. If we can push through this winter and do all of these things, and get through this winter to the other side, that's when we're going to start to be able to see hopefully vaccine at the levels where it could be able to have a real dramatic impact on this pandemic.

    But if Congress doesn't act now, we're going to be talking about horrific milestones every single month. And that just doesn't have to be. That's not what we want to see from our government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you saying you're worried about what will happen before that vaccine is available to so many Americans and before we can fully open up.

  • Richard Besser:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Rich Besser of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we thank you.

  • Richard Besser:

    Thanks, Judy.

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