That great sloshing sound you hear is the tens of billions of dollars of unspent COVID-19 relief funds slopping around federal, state and local government coffers. But the Biden administration wants to appropriate billions more and is resorting to scare tactics to get it.
The federal government has appropriated roughly $4.8 trillion in six COVID-relief laws, the most recent being President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March 2021. In January, the Government Accountability Office reported that only 87% of the total was obligated — legally committing the US government to pay — and only 76% was spent.
Contrary to what most Americans probably believe, little of the total was allocated for COVID vaccines, treatments and testing. Only 11% ($484 billion) was routed to the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency most directly involved with responding to public-health emergencies. By the end of November, HHS had only obligated 80% and spent 47% of its funds.
Amazingly, little of the HHS funding was directed to prevention or treatment and most remains unspent. Of the $41 billion allocated for vaccine research and development, procurement and distribution, less than a third had been spent. Of the $17 billion earmarked for drug and therapeutics research, development and procurement, less than 30% had been expended. And only slightly more than a quarter of the $58 billion allotted to procure and distribute tests and setting up community-based testing programs had been spent.
That didn’t stop the administration from seeking another $22.5 billion in March to pay for COVID treatments, tests, vaccines and research. Congressional negotiators cut the amount to $15.6 billion. But when Republicans objected to spending new money on the coronavirus response without first using unspent funding from existing aid programs, including money for state governments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled it from the $1.5 trillion annual spending bill.
A bipartisan $10 billion deal in the Senate last month foundered over objections to the administration’s plans to relax pandemic restrictions at the southern border. And an attempt to hold the Ukraine supplemental-aid bill hostage by attaching added COVID spending failed when, per the president, he was “informed by congressional leaders in both parties that such an addition would slow down action on the urgently needed Ukrainian aid.”
Now Team Biden claims that a COVID surge this fall and winter could infect up to 30% of Americans if the government doesn’t secure $22.5 billion in new funding for vaccines and treatments. An administration official projected 100 million infections and a potentially significant number of deaths. But he didn’t present new data, cite specific models or make a formal projection.
In other words, it’s a highly pessimistic guess designed to elicit more spending.
While many experts believe there could be a seasonal wave, the figure of 100 million infections is pure speculation. And considering that infections have increased substantially the past several weeks with only a minimal increase in hospitalization and without any uptick in deaths, there is no basis for believing that a fall/winter wave of infections will necessarily lead to a significant increase in severe COVID illness.
While protection against infection has waned, both vaccine and natural immunity continue to protect against progression to hospitalization and death. The accumulated vaccine immunity (two-thirds of people are fully vaccinated) and natural immunity (more than 60% of people have recovered from an infection) makes an upsurge in severe cases unlikely.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID will undoubtedly continue to evolve. Multiple subvariants of the Omicron variant are proliferating here and around the world. But we can only guess which variant will predominate in the future and how severe the disease it causes will be.
The fact is the administration has no better idea of the pandemic’s future than the groundhog does about winter’s duration. Maybe worse. The most consistent feature of the pandemic has been that expert predictions have been unfailingly inaccurate.
But there is no doubt we are in the midst of record inflation and much of the money appropriated for COVID remains unspent. The time is long past for the administration to provide an accounting to Congress and the public of what unused money remains available to deal with future surges before adding spending fuel to the inflationary fire.
Joel Zinberg, MD, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and director of public health and wellness at the Paragon Health Institute.