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5 ways Congress can help kids in the next 5 weeks | Column
The pandemic has been very hard on children, but our leaders can take action, writes a neonatologist.
Medical tents for vaccinations are set outside the Children's Hospital Los Angeles on Dec. 18.
Medical tents for vaccinations are set outside the Children's Hospital Los Angeles on Dec. 18. [ DAMIAN DOVARGANES | AP ]
Published Dec. 21, 2020
Updated Dec. 21, 2020

As a pediatrician, it is my job to do everything I can to help children grow up healthy, and I can attest to the serious toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on young people across the country. They need action now from our nation’s leaders — their health and future depend on it.

Though the country’s attention is on the next presidential administration, right now is a critical time for members of Congress to advance policies before the new year. These actions are apolitical and urgently needed.

Children’s health cannot wait. Here are five ways Congress can help put children’s health first during this critical timeframe:

Provide schools with the funding they need to reopen safely. Nationwide, school districts have invested heavily in creating safe learning environments, such as hybrid educational systems, socially distanced classrooms and disinfection protocols. Schools also increased emotional support for kids as they remain detached from their normal routines. Meanwhile state budgets have been decimated by reduced revenues and ballooning pandemic-related costs. Schools need robust funding so that children can return to the classroom safely, which is why Congress must provide significant resources for K-12 education and additional money for programs that support marginalized students most likely to be affected by missing in-person instruction.

Dr. Shetal Shah
Dr. Shetal Shah [ Provided ]

Address vaccine hesitancy and streamline immunization distribution. Immunizations are among public health’s greatest achievements. Vaccines are safe and effective. When public confidence in vaccination wanes, immunization rates follow- leading to outbreaks like last year’s measles epidemic and annual outbreaks of influenza and whooping cough. As we near the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine, misinformation on the virus and vaccines has spread rampantly on social media, including discredited conspiracy theories.

It is essential that Congress take the necessary steps to combat vaccine hesitancy, and one way to do that is passing the VACCINES Act, which supports research to better understand vaccine hesitancy and funds public service messaging about immunization safety.

Also, an effective vaccine protects no one if it can’t be delivered effectively. Congress must make investments now to create an efficient national vaccination campaign. Our colleagues and hospitals are already overwhelmed and overburdened – without adequate funding, our brittle systems to deliver widespread vaccination will fall short.

Expand Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) availability. Last March, pictures of physicians reusing disposable masks and substituting garbage bags for gowns illustrated the universal shortage of PPE. Nine months later, the need for this equipment remains dire. Funding for PPE production, purchasing and delivery to healthcare centers should be substantially increased- offering frontline healthcare workers the protection they need against a backdrop of rising infection rates and intensive care hospitalizations.

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Reinforce Medicaid to protect children’s access to vital health services. Medicaid is the nation’s largest insurer of children, providing health care coverage to more than 36 million kids. Medicaid works for children and is designed with their unique health needs in mind. Cuts to the Medicaid program would be devastating to the children and families who rely on the program, especially during a global health pandemic when the program is all the more vital. Congress must advance policies that support and protect the Medicaid program and improve access to health care. They can do this by providing states additional matching funding to help shore up their Medicaid programs.

Pass legislation to extend post-partum insurance coverage for mothers. In the United States, rates of death after childbirth have increased 58 percent in the past two decades, despite declining worldwide. Black mothers are at 2 to 4 times higher risk than other groups to die in the year after delivery. As the pandemic sheds light on the tragedy of healthcare disparities, extending Medicaid coverage to mothers for a year after childbirth is a common-sense measure to ensure they can continue to receive important health services and to address preventable maternal deaths.

These are just a few ways our elected leaders can put children first as they wrap up their legislative session, and they are opportunities that cannot be missed.

The pandemic has created unparalleled challenges for children, but despite obstacles, they remain resilient. We must support children through legislation and policies that lift them up.

Dr. Shetal Shah, a neonatologist and professor at New York Medical College, is chair of the Pediatric Policy Council and president of New York Chapter 2 of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.