Amid pandemic, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt warns Congress to prepare for the next outbreak

(Haraz N. Ghanbari | AP file photo) In this April 23, 2007, file photo, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt speaks during a news conference at the Treasury Department in Washington.

Washington • Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who previously served as America’s top health policy official, told Congress that even while the United States deals with the coronavirus pandemic it should also prepare for the next outbreak and learn from missteps that plagued the country’s initial response.

Especially if that next pandemic is a resurgence of the coronavirus this fall.

“While we focus on the pandemic in front of us, we can’t miss this opportunity to reflect on the lessons of COVID-19 and apply those lessons, so we are more prepared for the next pandemic or public health emergency,” Leavitt, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, time is of the essence since the next pandemic event might be the second wave of COVID-19 this fall.

Leavitt testified as part of a panel Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The hearing was titled, “Lessons Learned to Prepare for the Next Pandemic.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennesee Republican and chairman of the committee, said some may question holding a hearing during a current pandemic on future outbreaks. But he said no time is better to focus on what to do to prepare the country so that the impact wouldn’t be as deadly.

“Our experience has been we haven’t been able to adequately take the steps that we need to take to prepare for the next pandemic,” Alexander said.

During the past 20 years, over Republican and Democratic administrations and nine different laws addressing concerns about pandemics, Congress still hadn't done enough.

“The attention of Congress on difficult issues was on other matters,” Alexander said. “The same thing happened in the states where hospitals and states allowed their stockpiles to be diminished because other matters demanded more budgetary considerations.”

Leavitt underscored those concerns during his remarks and in a question-and-answer period when he noted that he dealt with the avian flu in his time on President George W. Bush's administration.

Action, Leavitt said, often only comes in response to a threat.

“That is human nature,” he said “It can be challenging to focus citizens and policymakers on public health preparedness when they are focused on other pressing issues of daily life. If a snake isn’t at your ankle, then you aren’t thinking about it.”

Leavitt's testimony came at the same time a House committee held an oversight hearing on the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, which has now cost more than 120,000 American lives and tossed the country into a recession.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned about a “disturbing surge” in new cases of the coronavirus in several states, such as in Arizona, where President Donald Trump was visiting on Tuesday.

Actions taken by government leaders and the public to be cautious about spreading the virus in the next few weeks, he added, “are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges.”