As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane, Connecticut lawmakers say they want to make sure the state is prepared for the next one.
Legislators are poised to pass a bill establishing a state Office of Pandemic and Public Health Preparedness, which would manage inventories for personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital beds, and vaccine storage. The office would also help connect businesses to local providers of PPE, and work to improve the state’s medical supply chain. The Appropriations Committee budget released last week allocated $300,000 to the Office of Pandemic Preparedness for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.
“If we’d had this in place, we might not have been caught so flat-footed,” said State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who co-sponsored the bill. “First responders went into the state supply of N95 masks, and they were all expired. That’s just one example of the fact that in many ways, we were not as prepared for a pandemic as we should have been.”
While the office would be housed within the Department of Public Health for administrative purposes, lawmakers want the office to have access to staff and resources from the rest of the state government. Working alongside the Department of Labor, for example, the office would work to develop strategies to restore jobs in the aftermath of a public health emergency and to train essential workers to prepare for staffing shortages.
Officials at the Department of Public Health testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that refining the existing system would be a more cost-effective way to prepare for future public health emergencies rather than creating a new structure, and that establishing and maintaining a strategic reserve would come “at an enormous cost.”
“Although PPE supply was a commonly cited challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, state maintenance of a large stockpile of PPE and medical equipment may not be fiscally feasible from a long-term perspective,” wrote Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, is a co-sponsor of the bill, and said that a new structure is necessary to prepare for the next public health crisis.
“I appreciate that DPH wants to incorporate pandemic preparedness into their work, but this has to be much broader than DPH,” Osten said. “It allows us to loop in all of the agencies and plan ahead of time. It’s not a criticism, but we fell down on preparing for this, and we should not let that happen again.
Osten said that the bill will be voted on by the full Senate shortly, and does not anticipate that it will face many challenges becoming law. She also shared her frustrations with the fact that Connecticut businesses were unable to access PPE manufactured locally, and instead relied on overseas companies.
“If we’d had this office in place, we would’ve had the resources at our fingertips for local businesses to ramp up PPE production,” Osten said. “Even today, there’s no database of local businesses that manufacture PPE. This should’ve been an opportunity to support local businesses.”
Ashley Zane, a government affairs associate for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, echoed Osten’s frustrations that there “wasn’t a point person” for connecting businesses to PPE at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, something CBIA hopes would be different in a future public health crisis.
“A lot of member companies were just trying to find PPE wherever they could, refreshing Amazon and trying to buy it in bulk,” Zane said. “Companies didn’t know where to turn to, so having this dedicated office is going to be incredibly helpful.”
Zane also noted that the lack of consistency for the business community was, and continues to be, a serious challenge.
“We constantly ask the state government for predictability with economic policy,” Zane said. “When public health issues hit, it affects the economy too, and throws everything into a state of uncertainty. Having this office and PPE reserves built up and best practices going forward will supply stability in a time of confusion.”