WASHINGTON — Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, says that Trump administration officials declined an offer of early congressional funding assistance that he and other senators made on Feb. 5 during a meeting to discuss the coronavirus.
The officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, said they “didn’t need emergency funding, that they would be able to handle it within existing appropriations,” Murphy recalled in an interview with Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast.
“What an awful, horrible catastrophic mistake that was,” Murphy said.
On Feb. 5, Murphy tweeted: “Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren't taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.”
Murphy told Yahoo News that the funding he and other congressional leaders wanted to allocate nearly two months ago would have paid for essential preventative measures, including hiring local screening and testing staff, researching a vaccine and treatments and the stockpiling of needed medical supplies.
“The consequences of that in Connecticut is that we're going to test less people today than we tested yesterday,” Murphy told “Skullduggery” hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman. “And that means that there are lots of people who are positive who are not going to know it, who are then going to be in contact with other people, who are going to spread the disease.”
An HHS spokesperson said that a few days before the Feb. 5 meeting, Azar had let Congress know he might need to use his “transfer authority” to fund the response to the virus. The Department was already using an Infectious Disease and Rapid Response Reserve Fund, which the spokesperson said was used to pay for CDC technical assistance, medical screening, and more lab capacity, among other things.
Connecticut is so undersupplied that officials have had to cut back on tests administered even as suspected new infections are surging, Murphy said, calling the forced reduction in testing “an abomination.”
Murphy said Connecticut has been particularly challenged in trying to build up its supply of re-agents, the compounds needed to run coronavirus tests. Re-agents are mostly manufactured abroad, and Murphy said “the whole world is competing” for them now.
The senator said he spent part of Thursday on the phone with a lab official in Connecticut who said he cannot administer enough tests due to the re-agent shortage.
“Had we appropriated money in February to start buying re-agent, we would be in a position to do many more tests today than we are,” Murphy said. ”It was just so clear to us that the administration didn't think this was going to be a problem. We begged them in that meeting to request emergency funding from the Congress and they told us ... that they had everything that they needed on hand, which was false.”
Murphy also criticized the White House’s decision not to take coronavirus test kits offered by the World Health Organization in January, which he said was an especially devastating mistake because that test was ready to go and easily replicable. Murphy said he believes that, as a result of the administration’s testing decisions, only about 20 percent to 30 percent of people who should be tested are able to do so.
“We didn't appropriate the dollars necessary to build out the testing infrastructure,” Murphy said.
The administration’s laissez-faire approach has also contributed to the country’s soaring infection rate, Murphy said, because Trump had resisted calls to invoke the Defense Production Act. The Defense Production Act, or DPA, allows the president to compel private companies to manufacture products deemed necessary for national security.
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Trump announced Friday that he was finally invoking the DPA to force General Motors to produce badly needed ventilators. But Murphy said the president had dragged his feet in using the DPA because some of his allies pressured him against invoking it.
“The president is getting push back from right-wing ideologues, from those who believe that the private sector can fix any and all problems that confront the nation,” Murphy said.
“The national Chamber of Commerce and other conservative, free-market ideologues inside the White House are arguing for the president to not use the DPA simply because they philosophically disagree with the idea that government should play any role in the management of supplies at a time like this.”
Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce, did not respond to Yahoo News’ requests for comment.
Calling the president’s coronavirus management strategy an “abysmal failure,” Murphy said the lack of federal leadership continues to directly correlate with cities’ and states’ inability to perform enough tests and stop the disease from spreading in the U.S. He said that supply shortages have led to a “‘Lord of the Flies’ environment in which every single state and every single hospital is left to essentially fend for themselves and try to scrounge together as much equipment as they can.”
Asked what he considers to be the most important thing Trump could do to help the country turn the corner in its effort to contain the coronavirus, Murphy said the president should rethink his recent assertion that the country might be able to return to normal by Easter, which falls this year on April 12.
“What I’m most worried about right now is that the president is just going to get sort of tired of these emergency measures,” Murphy said, referring to the social distancing efforts most Americans are now undertaking. “The result will be that people will start coming out of their homes and we will end up with a health care system in absolute, catastrophic failure.”
Murphy also said he is now close to proposing legislation that will bolster coordination between the U.S, and other countries for pandemic preparedness and protection so that next time a virus emerges, leaders are better able to respond.
“There could be another one at our doorstep next spring at the same time that we’re responding to the current virus,” he said.
He also hailed the passage of a $2 trillion stimulus package late Wednesday. The package is meant to boost an economy staggering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic and includes billions of dollars in tax credits for hard-hit industries and direct cash payments to individuals, among other provisions.
But while he said he was happy the bill would help the economy recover, “until hospitals have what they need in order to continue to respond to this ... our salvation is really in all of our hands.”
“There is no danger of overreacting right now,” Murphy said. “As the number of people infected grows by leaps and bounds every single day, as more hot spots are created all across the country, we need to take drastic measures.”
He said he is gravely worried about the administration’s “mixed messages” to the public about the duration and importance of social distancing.
“Everything in that bill is meaningless,” Murphy said of the stimulus, “unless we are all personally very serious about engaging in the best practices necessary to repel the virus.”
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