Shaping Public Health Policy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Zachary Kiser, PhD
2019-2020 ASH Congressional Fellow

Last year, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) selected Zachary Kiser, PhD, as its 2019-2020 ASH Congressional Fellow. The Congressional Fellow program aims to connect hematologists to the policy-making process and educate congressional members and staff about issues that are important to hematologists and their patients.

Dr. Kiser, who was previously a postdoctoral fellow in the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–funded research program at the University of Minnesota, is spending the 2019-2020 academic year in Washington, D.C., where he is helping shape health-care and hematology policy in Sen. Sherrod Brown’s congressional office.

In this edition of “Notes From the Hill,” Dr. Kiser describes how his responsibilities have shifted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This edition of Notes from The Hill comes to you not from the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, but instead from the basement of my townhome in Silver Spring, Maryland. Like that of every other hematologist around the world, my job has changed drastically since the beginning of 2020. The arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. has forced many of us into new – and sometimes uncomfortable – roles. On the other hand, it has also presented an opportunity to provide well-founded medical and scientific advice to a nation yearning for reliable answers.

During the past 5 months, I have been able to use my background as a medical scientist to help inform the decision-making process of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). I am lucky enough to work for a public servant who not only values the input of scientists, but wishes to use scientific evidence to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Sen. Brown and his staff have looked to me to take on many new tasks and heavy responsibilities, and I’ve leveraged my skills and life experience as a scientist to do so.

When the novel coronavirus emerged in China, Sen. Brown was one of the first senators to call attention to the emerging pandemic. Since December 2019, I have been monitoring relevant international and national updates, in addition to the state of Ohio’s response, and this has informed his positions. As the first cases started to appear on the West Coast, I began to conduct research and prepare background documents to inform communication strategy around Sen. Brown’s continuous efforts to strengthen America’s public health infrastructure.

As the crisis evolved, I drew on my background in biomedical science and global health to prepare policy memos, talking points, and background documents for the senator and senior staff. Once the virus began to spread in Ohio, I designed and distributed informational memos and outreach guides to help state officials answer questions and provide resources when interfacing with constituent groups.

The arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. has presented an opportunity to provide well-founded medical and scientific advice to a nation yearning for reliable answers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many flaws in our nation’s pharmaceutical and personal protective equipment (PPE) supply chain. As shortages of vital supplies emerged, I presented policy research to Sen. Brown’s comembers of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs regarding implementation of the Defense Production Act to aid in response efforts.

It became apparent to me early on that the Trump administration was not taking the necessary steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I was responsible for identifying and tracking gaps in the Trump administration’s efforts, as well as making recommendations on oversight letters and strategy for ongoing legislative efforts to address the pandemic. As a result of Sen. Brown’s foresight and the amazing work of his staff, he was one of the first U.S. officials to provide a plan for scaling up the production of medical PPE so that our first responders, essential workers, and medical community would be protected as much as possible while working on the front lines.

As we continue the long fight against COVID-19, I want my fellow hematologists to know that their work has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill. Every day, the people in our office recognize the great sacrifices you make so that we can all look forward to a healthier future. I believe this quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by way of Gregory Vercellotti, MD, of the University of Minnesota, encapsulates both the precipice our country stands on and the calling in the hearts of all physicians and scientists: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”