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Senators: Virus a U.S. threat, but economic fallout assured

by Frank E. Lockwood | February 26, 2020 at 3:41 a.m.
U.S. Sens. John Boozman, left, and Tom Cotton are shown in these file photos.

WASHINGTON -- Americans must prepare, as quickly as possible, for coronavirus outbreaks in this country, Arkansas' U.S. senators said Monday.

They said they hope a widespread epidemic can be averted, but the economic damage from the virus will be unavoidable.

Senators, briefed by top health officials Monday, said the threat is real.

"The message I took away is that this truly is a national emergency," said U.S. Sen. John Boozman. "We definitely need to step up our efforts to make sure that we're prepared."

The White House has requested $1.25 billion in new funding to address the problem, part of a $2.5 billion overall plan to combat the virus.

That won't be enough, the Republican from Rogers predicted.

"I think that it will take more money," Boozman said. "I think that Congress is willing to spend whatever it takes in order to keep our country safe. That's really the bottom line."

The nation isn't fully prepared for a widespread outbreak, and it may be hard to quickly obtain sufficient supplies, Boozman said.

"When you look at the stockpiles that we have, things like testing kits, masks, ventilators, all of these things that, in many cases, keep the medical personnel safe, we simply don't have enough," Boozman said. "Much of the equipment that we need is sourced from China, and they've basically just said, 'this is ours now.' So it's going to be difficult to procure it."

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton said he supports the White House funding request, but it may not be enough.

"We're probably going to need more money, and we especially need more money to accelerate the production and distribution of diagnostic testing kits," the Republican from Dardanelle said. "I expressed that urgent need in the meeting as I've expressed it to administration officials in the last week or so."

"We currently only have 14 confirmed cases in the United States that originated in the United States. But I do have concerns that there may be more unconfirmed, undiagnosed cases because of the bottleneck in getting testing kits out of [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] headquarters in Atlanta and into the field. That's why I have urged the [CDC] and the [Food and Drug Administration] to use every emergency authority possible to validate and accelerate the distribution of those kits," he said.

Early detection is critical to prevent the virus from spreading, he said.

"It's obviously much easier to control an outbreak if there are three or 10 confirmed cases in a community than if there are 300 confirmed cases in a community," he said.

Americans must be kept up to date on the latest developments, Cotton said.

"The people of Arkansas are grown-ups. They're adults. They can handle ambiguous or imperfect information. What they don't want is incomplete or sugarcoated information or happy talk or defeatism from their leaders. They want people to recognize the risks, to respond to them in an appropriate fashion and to try to do our very best to contain this outbreak and respond to it, if it happens," he said.

"The administration, and especially the president, is focusing on everything we can do to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus in the United States, certainly on the scale of China, but even what we've seen in places like Japan, South Korea and Italy," he said.

More Americans are likely to come down with the coronavirus, health officials told lawmakers.

"It probably is going to happen," Boozman said. "The question is, how do you respond to that? How do you contain it? That's what everybody's working really hard now to try to put the infrastructure in to do that. So I think we'll be ready when that time comes."

Cotton dismissed the idea that an epidemic is unavoidable.

"I think every effort we can make ought to be directed towards preventing outbreaks, or at least reducing the size of outbreaks. That's how we will prevent it from becoming a general outbreak across the country, if we can't prevent it," he said. "Until those outbreaks occur, I am not willing to throw in the towel and accept the defeatist attitude that says, 'It's inevitable and we just have to learn to live with it.'"

By halting flights from China, the United States avoided greater peril, Cotton said.

The senator had urged the White House to take the step.

"It's not a silver bullet. It does not prevent the virus from spreading. But it certainly bought us a lot of time," he said.

The White House understands the enormity of the challenge, according to Cotton.

"Since mid-January, when I first began to see ... reports of an unknown virus causing pneumonia in Wuhan, I've probably discussed it with [President Donald Trump] a half-dozen times. I have tried to sound the alarm. Thankfully, the president listened very early on to stop all those flights, and I know he is fully engaged and running the show," he said.

In a written statement, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Arkansas also is taking action.

"We are following the advice of the CDC and are as prepared as any state to handle the potential of the coronavirus in Arkansas. The Department of Health Outbreak Response Section and the Preparedness and Emergency Response Section have protocols in place for a potential outbreak and are in constant contact with our health care professionals to increase education and ensure all necessary supplies are distributed.

"We have confidence in our preparation, and we are hopeful that our preparation and education will reduce the understandable concerns of Arkansans. It should be noted that there are no confirmed cases in Arkansas at this time," Hutchinson said.

The risks posed by the coronavirus aren't just physical, however. They're financial, as well.

"There's a big economic risk as you've seen in the market sell-off the last couple of days," Cotton said.

With Chinese factories idle, millions there are unable to work and global supply chains have been disrupted, Boozman said.

"This is already starting to have a significant effect on the economy," he said.

A Section on 02/26/2020


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