- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Congressional leaders raced to approve a roughly $8 billion package to combat the coronavirus Wednesday, as the U.S. death toll climbed to 11 and Vice President Mike Pence announced plans to visit the center of the crisis in Washington state.

The House easily approved the emergency funding bill, which would speed the pursuit of a vaccine and treatments, boost state and local efforts to combat the disease and support the fight in other countries. Only two lawmakers — Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado — voted against the package, which was pushed through on a track for noncontroversial measures.

“As the coronavirus moves closer to becoming a global pandemic, it is spreading within the United States, including in my own home county, and its death toll continues to grow,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, New York Democrat. “While the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated a failure to understand public health needs, Congress is acting with the seriousness and sense of urgency the coronavirus threat demands.”

The Senate is poised to act by Thursday on the deal, which would triple the amount President Trump proposed for the U.S. response.

The president said he will sign whatever Congress sends to his desk.

Under the plan, more than $3 billion would go toward the pursuit of a vaccine, drug treatments and diagnostic tools to detect the virus, which began in China but has sickened more than 95,000 people around the globe.

It would spend $2 billion on public health measures such as detection and prevention of the illness known as COVID-19 and nearly $1 billion to support state and local efforts.

The rest would support efforts to combat the virus overseas, address humanitarian needs and set up safeguards to avoid supply-chain disruptions.

Also, the bill would replenish health accounts that Mr. Trump tapped to begin the response and authorize up to $7 billion in low-interest loans to small businesses affected by the outbreak.

Senate Republican leaders highlighted discretionary spending in the bill of nearly $7.8 billion, while House Democrats used an $8.3 billion figure that incorporates a $500 million expansion of telemedicine for doctors treating seniors under Medicare.

The coronavirus was discovered in China in December. It causes an illness that is mild in many people but can cause respiratory distress, organ failure and death, especially in older patients or those with preexisting medical conditions.

The CDC is tracking more than 100 infections in the U.S.

Though 48 of the cases are in patients who were repatriated from China and Japan, more states are reporting cases with no known origin, raising fears of spread within communities.

California reported its first death Wednesday — an elderly patient near Sacramento who had been on a cruise ship that traveled from San Francisco to Mexico. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency after the virus spread to 12 counties and sickened at least 50 people in his state.

Washington state, meanwhile, reported another death, bringing its toll to 10.

Mr. Pence said he will travel to Washington on Thursday to coordinate the response with Gov. Jay Inslee in the capital of Olympia, after a stop in Minnesota to tour a 3M plant that is producing masks for health care workers.

“We will be taking our entire team there, with an effort to really continue to support Gov. Inslee’s efforts to focus resources on the community in the Seattle area,” he said at a meeting with diagnostic lab CEOs at the White House.

Mr. Pence also said the administration will focus on California, which has been “uniquely impacted by the coronavirus.”

As the U.S. fortified its defenses, the situation worsened overseas.

While the rate of new cases in China has dropped dramatically, the worst of the outbreak has pivoted to places such as South Korea, with more than 5,600 cases, and Iran and Italy, each with about 3,000 infections.

Italy on Wednesday ordered schools to close nationwide through March 15 and said sports events will be played without fans for the month in a bid to prevent the virus’ spread. Iran, meanwhile, canceled Friday prayers this week.

Mr. Trump has banned foreign nationals who have been in China or Iran in the past 14 days from entering the U.S. and required South Korea and Italy to screen passengers for health problems before they head to the U.S.

The president said that given the number of canceled flights and travel restrictions he imposed, “you can say the borders are automatically shut down.”

He said he hopes domestic tourism will offset losses from canceled flights.

“A lot of people are staying in our country, and they’re shopping and using our hotels in our country, so from that standpoint, I think probably there’s a positive impact,” Mr. Trump said during a meeting with airline CEOs at the White House. “But there’s also an impact on overseas travel, which will be fairly substantial.”

Political leaders have emphasized the need for bipartisanship as the U.S. confronts the disease, yet all sides continue to point fingers.

The administration is racing to distribute more than 1 million COVID-19 tests to all corners of the country after technical problems and stringent criteria allowed cases to go unchecked — and sparked a flurry of criticism.

Administration officials late Tuesday said criteria limits had been lifted so doctors could order tests on anyone.

Yet Mr. Trump said the Obama administration made decisions that were “very detrimental to what we’re doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago” to accelerate testing.

Mr. Pence offered an explanation, saying the previous administration centralized testing with the federal Food and Drug Administration but that Mr. Trump’s changes will allow states to conduct testing.

House Republicans said a funding package could have been approved sooner, but Democratic leaders wanted to include partisan add-ons and run ads against Republicans ahead of Super Tuesday voting.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, chided the White House even as he praised both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

“Today, Democrats and Republicans in Congress showed they can come together in a bipartisan way to respond to the coronavirus in a swift, smart and strategic way to keep the American people safe,” he said. “I’m pleased that this bipartisan agreement rejects the Trump administration’s dangerously inadequate proposal and is much closer to the $8.5 billion figure that I believed was more appropriate.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, stuck to bipartisanship, saying Americans will “prevail together.”

“When the package arrives in the Senate, I urge my colleagues to do the same so we can get help to those who need it and ease some of the anxiety stemming from this outbreak,” Mr. Shelby said. “I think we owe it to the American people to do no less.”

Some say the funding is sorely needed. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said state and local officials have expertise in handling outbreaks but are running low on resources.

“We have some good people who know how to handle these things,” Dr. Plescia said. “We want the public to feel secure about that, but at the same time we do have some concerns because this could become overwhelming for state and local health departments but also for hospitals.”

He said Americans can do their part by following some simple rules: stay home if you are sick, call the doctor before visiting a clinic if you think you are infected, stay up on the latest news, wash your hands and try to avoid touching your face.

Mr. Trump said he is complying.

“I haven’t touched my face in weeks,” Mr. Trump said. “In weeks! I miss it.”

• Shen Wu Tan contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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