Push for 9/11-Style Pandemic Commission Boosted by Survivors

  • Senate duo sees chance to create independent pandemic review
  • Covid response work is already underway, committee heads say

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A bipartisan Senate duo has enlisted the help of Covid survivors to gather support for their bill to create a 9/11-style commission to study the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those who suffer lingering effects of Covid months after first contracting the virus—or whose loved ones died from the disease—see the commission as a path to improving the U.S. health system. They’re hoping a review of how the U.S. responded to the pandemic will bring better care to people with long-term Covid.

“If Covid was a war, a war where we lost 600,000 lives, then the survivors are our veterans,” said Diana Berrent, founder of Survivor Corps, an advocacy and support group. “We owe it to them to offer them wraparound services and build back a more-stable health care system that works for them.”

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Berrent and other survivors spoke Monday at an event in New Jersey lauding the legislation. She’s talked with lawmakers in recent weeks about the difficulties Covid survivors face getting back to work and navigating the health system.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) enlisted the help of Berrent’s group and others like it to build momentum for their bill (S. 412) to create an independent commission to investigate the U.S. response to the pandemic, and make recommendations for preparing for future ones.

Photographer: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) arrives to a closed-door meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 9, 2021.

The commission would have subpoena powers and a broad mandate to look at the pandemic, including the origin of the virus, vaccine development and distribution, and scientific research on Covid.

Committee Jurisdiction

Menendez and Collins have tried unsuccessfully since last fall to create such a commission, and say they’ve now got the right coalition to send it to President Joe Biden’s desk. New Covid cases across the U.S. are dropping, which they say offers space for a deep review of the pandemic response.

“It’s compelling now because it will span two administrations, so it’s less political, and we’re at the time where we can get answers for the families of the 600,000 people whose lives have been lost,” Menendez said.

The pair are contending with other top lawmakers who say they’re already doing this work.

“Any investigation ought to be done by the committee of jurisdiction: just like January 6; just like the Russia investigation,” said Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation. “Why would we set up an independent or outside group to look at something that’s part of our job?”

Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate HELP Committee, was less dismissive of the idea of an independent commission, but noted she was already working with Burr on legislation to improve the nation’s pandemic response.

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Remove Politics

Supporters of the Menendez-Collins bill say they want an independent investigation that’s free of the politics of Capitol Hill, and could champion policy changes.

“We must take a full and unvarnished look at what happened and why, so that we can understand how to make sure it never happens again,” Sabila Khan said at the event in New Jersey. Khan lost her father to the coronavirus and founded the support group Covid-19 Loss Support for Family & Friends.

People still experiencing fatigue, brain fog, and other lingering symptoms of long Covid-19 often find themselves lost in the U.S. health system, said Kavita Patel, who advises Survivor Corps and is a practicing primary care physician at Mary’s Center, a community clinic in Washington, D.C.

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The commission could help create a central registry of people with long Covid to help clinicians and researchers track their symptoms and health, Patel said. It could also help coordinate the federal response, allowing policymakers to address issues like housing or treatment for these patients, she said.

“If you’re struggling with patients with long Covid or you have long Covid, you really have no resources to turn to,” she said.

The commission would be charged with diving deep into the nation’s Covid response and recommending changes for how to better respond in another pandemic—as well as how to deal with the ongoing effects of the virus. Covid survivor groups say that will be key to getting changes off the ground.

The 9/11 commission helped create a registry for people affected by the terrorist attacks in New York, and later established a fund to pay for their health services.

“It’s important we look at this as a nation and ask: what went wrong and why,” Chris Kocher, executive director of COVID Survivors for Change, said in an interview. “Having something comprehensive and independent gives it that weight.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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