Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) welcomes and congratulates Dr. Ashish Jha on his new position as the White House Coronavirus Coordinator, which he began this month. PHR is grateful for Dr. Jha’s service on our Board of Directors and wishes him well in this critical role.
Dr. Jha takes up this new role at a pivotal moment, as the United States is again seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases and the total US death toll from the pandemic nears the one million mark. The recent shortsighted decision by a federal judge to strike down federal mask–wearing mandates risks undermining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) authority, as well as the ability of the federal government to respond to the evolving pandemic.
In that context, PHR takes this opportunity to present six key COVID policy positions and recommendations for the U.S. government:
“Follow the Science”
From the earliest days of the pandemic, PHR has urged political leaders to “follow the science” to ensure that administration policy is rooted in the best possible public health and scientific data. We encourage the Biden administration to stand firm in support of public health data and expertise when crafting administration policies on any future updates to recommendations regarding mask-wearing, social distancing, or contact tracing as the pandemic continues to evolve.
Global Vaccine Equity
While PHR applauds the Biden administration’s efforts thus far to promote widespread access to and adoption of COVID-19 vaccines, it is clear that more work is needed to secure global vaccine equity. As of now, just over 65 percent of the U.S. population is vaccinated, and vaccination rates have been declining over the last two months. The United States must also leverage its political influence with other vaccine-producing countries to support the World Health Organization’s (WHO) international COVAX effort to vaccinate the world, while also emphasizing an equity lens to prioritize access to developing countries, countries or regions in conflict, and displaced or marginalized populations.
PHR urges the Biden administration to continue to engage vaccine-hesitant communities with any and all tools at its disposal and to develop new initiatives to address vaccine hesitancy and the low uptake of the recommended booster shots.
Vaccine Production and Distribution
With the immense public financial backing behind COVID-19 vaccine development, the U.S. government has unique leverage to push major pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property restrictions, share their know-how, and help boost global vaccine production capacity. PHR encourages the White House to champion global efforts toward building the greatest possible global vaccine production capacity and the equitable and urgent distribution of vaccine doses around the world.
Despite the wealth of data and scientific consensus around the key pillars of the public health response to the pandemic, a small but vocal group of health professionals continues to sow fear and doubt through the promotion of misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 and its impacts, vaccines, and public health measures to curb the spread of the virus. PHR calls on leading public health officials and the White House to combat disinformation in all its forms publicly, through new federal government initiatives, and via collaborative work with states, professional organizations, and experts in the field.
Threats to Public Health
PHR is gravely concerned about steps taken by some judges, as well as state and local governments across the United States, to weaken public health institutions and funding and to muzzle or restrict scientists and public health officials. This destructive effort against public health more broadly, which extends beyond efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, poses a significant, long-term threat to public health in the United States. PHR urges the Biden administration to safeguard public health professionals and institutions across the country and to continue funding public health departments and initiatives. We further urge the White House to support the reversal of restrictions that have recently been enacted, such as efforts in some states to undermine or resist vaccine mandates, andother legislative efforts to restrict public health officials’ authority during future pandemics or public health emergencies.
Title 42 Expulsions
For more than two years, the CDC and successive White House administrations have used the Title 42 public health order to justify expelling asylum seekers along the U.S. southern border without properly evaluating their fear of being returned to persecution, as required by international and U.S. asylum law. While we welcome the CDC’s recent announcement that it will terminate the Title 42 order on May 23, PHR is deeply concerned about proposals already being presented in Congress to re-institute a Title 42-like policy to categorically block migrants and asylum seekers on baseless public health grounds.
The United States has the tools in place to mitigate public health concerns while safely, humanely, and efficiently processing asylum seekers at ports of entry through mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, testing, vaccination, and avoiding congregate settings. The Biden administration should take steps to present a comprehensive plan to ensure safe, orderly, and just processing of asylum seekers in the weeks leading to the conclusion of Title 42, utilizing the full range of public health tools and support from both government bodies and civil society.
The COVID-19 pandemic remains far from over and the U.S. government must continue to play a leadership role in this consequential time. As Dr. Jha begins his new role, PHR hopes that these six policy priorities will continue to inform the Biden administration’s policy for the ongoing U.S. response to the pandemic. PHR stands ready to advise and support meaningful progress in these critical policy areas.