This post is part of a series of quarterly roundups on scientific integrity.
During the third quarter of 2022, Congress passed major legislation to subsidize clean energy but failed to authorize new funding for the COVID-19 response or strengthen requirements for evidence in Food and Drug Administration user fee programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weakened guidance for preventing COVID-19 transmission while EPA proposed new rules to protect communities from hazardous chemicals.
What got accomplished
Over the past few months, Congress has passed several science-informed laws. Most notable is the Inflation Reduction Act, which responds to the evidence about global warming and the imperative to take immediate action to slow it. A problematic “dirty deal” between leadership and Senator Joe Manchin promised that in exchange for Manchin voting yes on the bill, his federal permitting bill that would fast-track more fossil fuel projects would be included in the must-pass bill to keep the government open after the fiscal year’s end. Opposition from both parties sank Manchin’s proposal, and was a win for advocates and lawmakers who warned that it would disproportionately harm communities of color, Indigenous communities, and communities where most people have low incomes. The Inflation Reduction Act directs $369 billion toward a set of clean energy subsidy programs that will help prevent some of the climate change-related harms that will fall most heavily on marginalized communities; however, it fails to establish robust safeguards against the risk that these communities will bear the brunt of the costs associated with this long-overdue energy transition. Passing bills like the Environmental Justice for All Act and the Public Health Air Quality Act would help use data to advance environmental justice around energy production and other polluting activities.
Congress did avert the possibility of a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill before the end of the fiscal year (September 30). The bill did not include the $22.5 billion for COVID-19 vaccines, tests, research, and global response that the White House requested back in March. It did include a reauthorization of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) user fee programs, which are essential to the agency’s ability to keep evaluating new drugs and devices. However, the user fee reauthorization did not include provisions that public health advocates supported to strengthen requirements for evidence that drugs approved under accelerated pathways provide meaningful health benefits; require evidence of accuracy for hundreds of thousands of diagnostic tests developed in laboratories; improve safety of dietary supplements and cosmetics; and increase the diversity of the groups of patients enrolled in clinical trials. Combining these policy improvements with the user fee legislation would have greatly increased the likelihood of those improvements becoming law.
The 117th Congress is running out of time to confirm highly qualified nominees and pass legislation to ensure federal agencies can retain qualified scientists and other employees with expertise. The House has passed the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (after hearing from more than 100 organizations that support it), which would establish parity for federal government whistleblowers with 16 laws passed since 2000 for private-sector employees in different industries. The House has also passed the Preventing a Patronage System Act, which would block future administrations from implementing schemes like the Trump administration’s Schedule F. President Trump’s Schedule F executive order would have stripped civil service protections from a large swath of agency employees and enabled the administration to replace them with people selected based on their politics rather than expertise. Both of these bills are now with the Senate. Still in committee in the House are the Scientific Integrity Act, which would require agencies to establish and enforce strong scientific integrity policies, and the Stop Corporate Capture Act, which would require courts to show deference to reasonable agency interpretations of the statutes they implement — a longstanding practice threatened by the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA decision.
Looking ahead: The 117th Congress will adjourn on January 3, 2023.
CDC gives up on preventing COVID-19 transmission
President Biden might not have been delivering scripted remarks when he said “The pandemic is over” in a September interview, but his statement reflected the view of an administration that seems to be willfully blinding itself to the ongoing toll of COVID-19 and the need for a multifaceted response. Although the U.S. had fewer COVID-19 deaths in September than in the previous three months, hundreds of deaths each day hardly counts as the pandemic being “over.”
In August, CDC released new guidelines that recommend universal masking indoors only when COVID-19 community levels are high — even though these “community levels” focus on hospital capacity rather than transmission and will only show that there’s a problem after weeks of high transmission, at which point it will be harder to slow. If the agency were to instead recommend indoor masking when transmission levels are high, they could prevent thousands of cases of COVID-19 that would lead to hundreds of cases of disability and death.
The August guidelines also remove the recommendation for the “test-to-stay” approach to limiting COVID-19 transmission in schools. Under this approach, students who were close contacts of someone who tested positive had to take regular COVID-19 tests and could keep coming to school as long as those tests were negative. An evaluation of the test-to-stay approach, published by CDC in December, found that schools with test-to-stay had lower daily COVID case rates.
Another problematic element of the August guidelines is that they recommend an isolation period of only five days for people who test positive. Studies of people infected with the Omicron variant have found many to be shedding virus beyond five days. In making the five-day recommendation, CDC authors cite research conducted before Omicron’s arrival in late 2021 (and they don’t use the word “Omicron” in the document at all). Using more recent research to inform isolation guidelines likely would have resulted in a longer recommended isolation period — but CDC’s primary goal with this guidance update seems to be “reducing barriers to social, educational, and economic activity.”
In another move that invites increased transmission risk, CDC released another guidance update in September stating that when community transmission levels are not high, healthcare facilities can choose not to require that patients and staff wear masks. The guidance states that individuals might choose to continue masking “based on individual preference.” Such a statement ignores the evidence that masks work best when multiple people are wearing them, not just the individuals at highest risk.
The one approach to COVID-19 response that CDC still seems willing to support is vaccination: In September, the agency recommended use of the bivalent boosters, which specifically target the Omicron subvariants BA.4. and BA.5. Vaccination is effective at reducing the risk of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19, but it does not prevent infected people from transmitting the virus to others. As CDC authors explained in December 2020, “No single strategy can control the pandemic; rather, a multipronged approach using all available evidence-based strategies at the individual and community levels can break transmission chains.” Such a multi-pronged approach — using strategies like mask mandates and improving ventilation while also urging vaccination — is also the most equitable. When mask mandates disappear, workers in public-facing jobs are exposed to more airborne viruses, and Black, Native, and Latinx workers are more likely than white workers to hold jobs that must be done in person. Also, people at greatest risk of death or long-term complications from COVID-19 infections are more likely to feel they must stay at home rather than risk visiting grocery stores or other places where hundreds of unmasked people are exhaling germs.
Looking ahead: Some states still require masks in certain public settings, such as healthcare facilities. AARP regularly updates state mask information here.
EPA moves ahead on chemical safety
EPA proposed a new rule to protect communities that are home to facilities using hazardous substances, following numerous incidents that have harmed nearby residents. The Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention rule would revise EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), which sets requirements for 12,500 facilities that use, make, or store highly hazardous chemicals. Genna Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights several important provisions of the draft rule: “requiring assessments of safer technology alternatives, along with newer provisions requiring facilities to analyze natural disaster hazards in their plans, enhancing worker involvement in plan development, and requiring analysis of consequences to local communities for siting new facilities.”
Communities suffering from contamination of the “forever chemicals” PFAS and PFOA could also see some improvements under an EPA proposal to designate these chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. If it’s finalized, the designation will mean polluting companies will have to report releases of the chemicals and bear the responsibility for cleaning up contamination. To date, Reed notes that the burdens of PFAS and PFOA contamination “have fallen harder on communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, and families living in or near military bases.”
Looking ahead: Following the closing of the proposals’ comment periods (October 31 for the RMP rule and November 7th for PFAS and PFOA), EPA staff will review comments and revise the rules. Both could be finalized in 2023.