Culpeper Star-Exponent: Spanberger cheers coronavirus relief bill, holds health-expert town hall

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

There is no time to waste in trying to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger says, with urgency in her voice.

That’s why she held a town hall meeting about the virus with constituents and health experts on Friday evening, and stayed into the wee hours Saturday in Washington to cast her vote for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Late Friday night, President Donald Trump voiced his approval. The Senate is expected to pass the package next week.

Following the House’s post-midnight vote, Spanberger—who represents Central Virginia’s 7th District—left the U.S. Capitol for the hour’s drive home to Henrico County near Richmond. She voted with the broad majority to approve the bill, 363-40.

At 6 p.m. Friday, Spanberger held an hour-long virtual town hall that connected residents across the 7th District, by phone, with her in Washington and health experts in Charlottesville and Spotsylvania County.

Spanberger was joined by Dr. Christopher Newman, Mary Washington Healthcare’s chief medical officer and operating officer; Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Thomas Jefferson Health District; Dr. Peter Kasson, an associate professor of molecular physiology and of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia; and Dr. William Petri, a professor of medicine in U.Va.’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health and the vice chair of the university’s Department of Medicine.

Petri and his colleagues stressed how crucial it is for everyone to wash their hands thoroughly, not touch their face with their hands, and maintain social distancing from other people.

“It’s all terribly important, even for young people who are probably not at great risk of having severe COVID-19,” said Petri, a professor of medicine in U.Va.’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health and the vice chair of the university’s Department of Medicine.

“We need to all be in this together, because we are trying to keep the rate of increase at a manageable level so that our hospitals in the U.S. are not overwhelmed, as in the situation we’ve seen in northern Italy,” he said.

“We can all do something through social distancing and hand washing to limit the rate of increase so the health-care system is not overwhelmed,” Petri said.

Helpfully, the federal Centers for Disease Control now says that coronavirus patients don’t have to be treated in “negative pressure” rooms with special air-flow ducts–a resource that is greatly limited nationwide, he said.

Stewart, a town-hall caller, asked why so much attention is being given to the novel coronavirus when the seasonal flu kills so many people.

Dr. Newman answered that the coronavirus is a very different pathogen than the flu, and is 10 to 50 times more deadly.

Up to 20 percent of coronavirus patients develop serious illness, with 6 percent requiring intensive care unit and ventilator support, he said. Their illnesses last three to six weeks.

“Six percent of a large amount of people requiring ICU support could very quickly overcome our health-care capacity to care for people,” Newman said.

Dr. Kasson likened the novel coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

“The new coronavirus is different,” Kasson said. “But it is a more appropriate analogy for the type of situation that we are in than the annual flu.”

Earlier in the week, as daily news about the coronavirus in the U.S. accelerated, Spanberger and her staff planned the town hall in Spotsylvania to discuss the topic.

But when they realized people who would be the most worried about the virus might not travel to the town hall, and negotiations on the relief bill dragged on, they switched the meeting to a virtual gathering so residents could just phone in to ask questions, she said in an Culpeper Star-Exponent interview on Saturday morning.

On Saturday, Spanberger explained the result of rapid negotiations Friday and Thursday over the coronavirus relief bill between House members, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House.

The bill would also support small businesses and their employees, who may be financially threatened as closures and business slowdowns continue in the weeks to come.

The bipartisan legislation will improve public access to coronavirus testing, enable workers to stay home if they’re sick, and provide food security to children and seniors during the pandemic, Spanberger said.

The big thing is slowing how fast the coronavirus spreads.

Encouraging people who develop coronavirus symptoms to self-quarantine will help slow its rate, she said. Stabilizing families by providing paid sick leave will help, too, the freshman lawmaker added.

Spanberger noted that her Richmond-area YMCA has limited group activities to 20 or fewer people.

She said she realizes that “staying away from others and self-quarantining seem like an impossible assignment for so many. But it requires our best effort to keep the virus from a greater spread that will impact us all.”

The House relief bill would speed dollars to reimburse states and localities that will bear the brunt of the crisis, Spanberger said.

She noted that rapidly mounting deaths in Italy have put that country on a total lockdown.

“Can we slow the spread, deal with the virus, and avoid a lockdown?” Spanberger said. “We don’t know where we’ll be in two weeks.”

As they considered the emergency bill and an earlier relief measure, bolstering public health and stimulating the economy were lawmakers’ priority, she said.

How to provide paid sick leave to U.S. workers became a sticking point between Democrats and Republicans, Spanberger said.

Democrats were highly determined that the economy would be helped best by putting money directly into the pockets of the people who will be spending it, she said. They wanted that done through the Social Security system. Republicans wanted to do it through employers, via a payroll tax deduction, and they prevailed in providing compensation through employers, Spanberger said.

The measure also limits legal liability to companies such as 3M, which are ramping up emergency production of face masks, so they have some protection from lawsuits for the duration of the outbreak, she said.

The next step, a third round of coronavirus legislation, will take longer, Spanberger said. Legislators want to ensure it covers the whole gamut of how Congress can relieve the pandemic’s strait on the U.S. economy.

People expect that the travel and tourism industries, and various tourism-reliant cities, will be hard hit.

But Spanberger wants more data before acting, to learn from business leaders where stimulus measures could have the greatest positive impact.

“We’ve seen recessions before, but public health is very different,” she said. “We don’t know the full scope of this yet, how much public engagement will limit the spread of the virus.”

“We’ve reached a critical inflection point in the fight against coronavirus, and both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, as well as the administration, must find a path forward on this legislation—for the health of our families and for the good of our country,” she said.

To protect themselves, seniors and families must take precautions now , as Virginia experiences a rising rate of coronavirus cases, Spanberger said.

“I stand with the people of Central Virginia as we work together to mitigate the impacts of the disease on those affected, strengthen the resiliency of our healthcare system, and look out for the most vulnerable among us,” she said. “There will be trying moments in the days ahead, but that only makes it more imperative for us to unite around this common cause.”

The other week, Spanberger voted with a majority of House members to pass the nation’s first coronavirus preparedness and response supplemental package.

Earlier, she and a group of her colleagues met with Vice President Pence and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx at the White House to discuss the administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

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