Federal Government’s Emerging COVID-19 Response

March 18, 2020

In the last two weeks, the federal government has been working to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and domestic public health and economic crisis, with efforts intensifying after the President declared a national emergency late last week. Ten days ago, a first bill was approved and signed to inject $8.3 billion into CDC, NIH, and the nation’s public health infrastructure. A second major emergency-funding package totaling nearly $100 billion was approved by House last week to support the public’s health and caregiving needs. This measure is pending in the Senate, while work on a third package to address the larger economic fallout of the pandemic is already underway with a likely cost between  $750 billion and $1 trillion in direct funding and tax supports.

Emergency Funding

HR 6074- Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020:

After speedy bipartisan negotiations among Congressional leaders, President Trump signed into law a multi-billion COVID-19 emergency funding measure on March 6, 2020. The $8.3 billion package is three times the amount that the President initially requested and provides additional emergency spending to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The package allocated $3.1 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to allocate towards vaccine development, protective equipment, and community health centers for underserved groups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received $2.2 billion, including $950 million for state and local public health departments. In addition, the measure included $836 million for the National Institutes of Health, including $826 million for the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to support research on the origins of the virus to develop animal study models, vaccines, and treatments. The act also authorized $61 million for the Food and Drug Administration to review therapies and respond to drug and devise shortages.

HR 6201- Families First Coronavirus Response Act:  On March 14, the House reached a hard-fought bipartisan compromise with the Administration and passed, on a vote of 363-40, a worker-focused financial relief measure. The emergency package includes expanded nutritional assistance, free or insurance-covered COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment insurance. Specifically, the bill guarantees two weeks of paid sick leave (through the end of this year) for employees at organizations with less than 500 workers, with small employers reimbursed for their costs through new tax credits and some flexibility available to smaller employers. The bill also includes more than $1 billion for food aid to states, along with a waiver of work requirements and flexibility to administer “grab-and-go” school lunch programs.  

While this package passed the House with strong support from both parties and the President, it is unclear if the Senate will take it up as is. There is a significant pressure for a broader package to address the pandemic’s many economic disruptions. President Trump this week requested approximately $850 billion in economic stimulus in the form of direct spending, tax relief, loans and loan guarantees, direct cash payments to low- and middle-income Americans, a bailout of the airline industry, and more. The total amount of that package is in line with what Democratic Congressional leaders seek, but the specific distribution mechanisms (e.g. spending vs. tax relief) differ significantly. Industries and other sectors of the economy are also coming forward to detail the many costly economic challenges they face with the pandemic. Among those sectors is higher education, which has focused on unforeseen student needs as well as the significant costs we have faced in moving most students home and transitioning to online learning. Bipartisan negotiations are ongoing and the Congress may move quickly either to complete action on HR 6201 or to develop a broader package that could approach a total of $1 trillion. It could also be that negotiations over the allocation of spending versus other economic tools and the prioritization of certain industries over others may slow the package down for several weeks. 

Federal Guidance

In addition to stimulus spending and emergency public-health services, the Administration has been steadily issuing guidance and granting flexibility in meeting requirements related to higher education,  research, and international students. The Department of Education released some guidance on Federal Work-Study, distance education, accreditation, and privacy rights. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security signaled it would waive restrictions on international students engaging in online coursework. NIH, NSF, and the Department of Energy also have released guidance to federal researchers regarding their work, their labs, their staff, and other related issues, with more expected as federal science agencies respond to the changes on campuses around the country. We are in touch with administrators and staff across the campus on these matters and happy to provide more information on any of these topics.

Looking Ahead

As the situation evolves rapidly in Washington, and legislation continues to come forward, Harvard’s Office of Federal Relations will remain closely engaged with federal lawmakers and agencies. If you have any questions on this update or Harvard’s advocacy in Washington, please feel free to be in touch with Suzanne Day (suzanne_day@harvard.edu) or Kara Haas (kara_haas@harvard.edu) in our DC office.