Washington – As cases of coronavirus in the United States near 60, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy came out of a closed-door briefing on the disease Tuesday and said they are alarmed and disappointed by what they heard.
In that briefing, and in a conference call with reporters afterward, U.S. health officials warned that the spread of coronavirus across the United States appears inevitable.
“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States,” Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.
Connecticut’s senators joined other Democrats and some Republicans who are critical of the administration’s efforts to safeguard the nation from a new virus that has perplexed scientists and medical experts.
“Many of us were calling for major emergency funding weeks ago and (President Donald) Trump ignored us. Now it’s likely too little and too late,” said Murphy.
The Trump administration is sending Congress a request to approve $1.25 billion in emergency funding to fight coronavirus, which has been given the name COVID-19. It also plans to transfer about $500 million from the fund, earmarked initially to fight Ebola, to efforts to protect Americans from the latest global health threat.
“Many of us were calling for major emergency funding weeks ago and (President Donald) Trump ignored us. Now it’s likely too little and too late.”
Sen. Chris Murphy
Murphy said the president’s request for $1.25 billion in new funding “is a tenth of what he has already spent in so-called emergency funding for his worthless border wall.”
In a tweet sent after he left the briefing, Murphy said “the Trump administration’s failure to take coronavirus seriously is so frightening. It will cost lives.”
The senators were briefed by officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the State Department.
When he left the briefing, Blumenthal said “the approach right now seems to be ‘take two aspirin and call us in the morning.’”
“The supplemental is way below what’s needed to protect the American people against an outbreak that seems to be, from my impression, virtually inevitable,” Blumenthal said. “This briefing, which was classified, should be made available to the American people because there would be an outcry, an uproar.”
Several Republicans who attended the briefing were also concerned that more money is needed to fight COVID-19.
“This is not the time to try to shortchange the American people. This is the time to step up,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
On Tuesday afternoon, at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Murphy asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar why the administration had not asked for additional money to fight coronavirus earlier and why it had not asked for more money.
Azar said, until now, HHS did not know enough about the virus and how much money the administration should ask from Congress to combat it.
“We believe we know enough to do that now,” Azar said.
He also said the amount the administration had asked Congress to provide would be sufficient.
The Trump administration said more than $1 billion of the money requested for coronavirus would go toward vaccine development and the other funds would go toward stockpiling protective equipment like masks.
Azar said the United States has a stockpile of 30 million surgical masks, but HHS estimates suggest the country needs 300 million masks.
Ultimately, Congress will decide how many resources there will be to combat COVID -19.
Meanwhile the global spread of COVID-19, which was first detected in China, continued to spread. South Korea has reported nearly 1,000 cases, Iran has reported 15 deaths, and cases have been detected in 22 other countries, including Italy and Afghanistan.
As of yesterday, the total number of cases in China were 77,658, with 2,663 reported deaths.
At a news conference in New Delhi Tuesday, Trump downplayed concerns about the coronavirus spreading in the United States, saying the situation is “under control” and a “problem that’s going to go away.”
And, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Trump administration travel restrictions and quarantines of travelers from China have been effective.
“The risk from COVID-19 to the American public remains low,” Wolf said.
“The approach right now seems to be ‘take two aspirin and call us in the morning.’”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal
Those comments contradicted the CDC’s message on Tuesday, which said coronavirus is expected to begin spreading at a community level in the United States and disruptions to daily life could be “severe.”
“As we’ve seen from recent countries with community spread, when it has hit those countries, it has moved quite rapidly. We want to make sure the American public is prepared,” Messonnier said.
The CDC said there have been 12 cases of coronavirus diagnosed in the United States linked to travelers from China and another two cases of infection of people who came into contact with those travelers. Another 43 cases were reported among repatriated U.S. citizens, residents, and their families
Three cases resulted from people returning from China’s Hubei province, while 40 are from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Yokohama, Japan. Despite increasing numbers of cases, no deaths have been reported yet in the United States.
The CDC announced earlier this month that it would distribute dozens testing kits to allow states to test people for coronavirus on site, instead of sending samples to the CDC.
But the CDC said Tuesday that few laboratories have received the kits, which can test up to 800 people.
When it receives its kit, Connecticut plans to deploy it at the state public health laboratory in Rocky Hill.