While the number of cases of Covid-19 in rural counties is on the rise, additional funding to cover the cost of vaccination and treatment is stalled in Washington.
According to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, between April 25 and May 1, the rate of new Covid infections has risen by more than 50%. Rural counties reported nearly 29,000 new infections last week, up 29% from two weeks ago, the third week of increases.
But those new infections will find fewer treatments, officials said. On April 20, President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would not be purchasing additional doses of monoclonal antibody treatments because funding for Covid-19 treatments from the federal government had run out.
With rural residents dying at a higher rate than urban residents, the loss of those treatments could further increase the toll Covid is taking on rural communities.
And, without the federal government covering the cost of vaccinations and treatments, rural hospitals could be forced further into debt.
“If rural hospitals need to provide vaccinations and treatment at no cost to patients, but receive no federal support to cover the cost for people who are unvaccinated, the cost could be a huge challenge,” said Carrie Henning Smith, Deputy Director, University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center.
“Many rural hospitals operate with a razor-thin margin, and rural residents are more likely to be unvaccinated than urban residents. That means that rural hospitals could be providing more uncompensated care, proportionally, than urban hospitals, with fewer financial resources to soften the blow.”
The Biden administration had previously requested an additional $22.5 billion in additional Covid funds, but that money was taken out of the spending package passed in March.
In early April, Senate negotiators were able to come together over a $10 billion Covid aid package, funded with unused money from previous Covid aid packages. Authored by U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the bill would provide $5 billion for therapeutics, while the rest would be set aside for vaccinations, booster shots, and testing. The Senators said the funding covers most of the White House’s request, leaving out funds for global efforts to combat the pandemic.
Currently, that aid package is stalled in Congress. It’s unclear when, or whether, the measure would come up for a vote.
Without that funding, the country faces shortages of treatments, as well as a collapse of the systems put in place to test and vaccinate, should a future outbreak arise, the administration said.
“Without funding, the United States will not have enough additional boosters or variant-specific vaccines, if needed, for all Americans,” the White House said in a statement. “The federal government is unable to purchase additional life-saving monoclonal antibody treatments and will run out of supply to send to states as soon as late May. The federal government cannot purchase sufficient quantities of treatments for immunocompromised individuals. And, the federal government will be unable to sustain the testing capacity we built over the last 14 months, as we head into the second half of the year.”
The White House has estimated the country’s supply of monoclonal antibodies will run out later this month.
And while some treatments, like Paxlovid, are supposed to be free, having already been paid for by taxpayers, officials at HHS worry that some uninsured people, like those in rural areas, may not be able to afford the office visit or emergency room visits required to get a prescription for it.
Already rural hospitals are left holding the bag. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) said it would stop accepting claims to pay for testing, treatment, and vaccinations of uninsured patients as of April 5, due to the lack of funds. That leaves rural hospitals footing the bill for their uninsured Covid patients.
National organizations, like the National Rural Health Association, are working to convince Congress to pass the Schumer-Romney package. But, said Brock Slabach, NRHA COO, the upcoming elections may hinder any further progress.
“We’re trying to get attention to the matter, but we’re in an election year, and Congress is dysfunctional right now,” he said. “As the election gets closer, we anticipate it’s going to get more dysfunctional.”
Officials have warned that the country can’t afford to wait for Congress to act.
“As the Administration has warned, failure to fund these efforts now will have severe consequences as we will not be equipped to deal with a future surge. Waiting to provide funding once we’re in a surge will be too late,” the White House said in a statement.
The administration said it would need time and money to secure contracts for vaccines and treatments, including antiviral pills, pre-purchases on new antiviral treatments, and the creation of next-generation Covid vaccines.