It is heartbreaking the first fatalities of the coronavirus (COVID-19) are in Washington. The situation continues to develop as more deaths and confirmed cases are reported daily. We know it is going to take a massive mobilization of federal, state and local resources to address the virus. That is why my colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and I are working on a bill that would provide support to state and local first responders and accelerate the development of a vaccine to treat the disease.
The emerging threat of COVID-19 is deeply personal to me not only because it affects my state and community, but also because I started my career in immunology research. My experience in the lab underscores my faith in science, and my experience in Congress taught me how critical resources are to deal with a crisis.
Scientists, medical experts, and state and local public-health officials are doing a critical job, sometimes putting their own health at risk. We need to trust and respond to professionals on the ground to get a handle on this virus. To do that, we must make sure Congress and the Trump administration are doing everything they can to be transparent, accountable and, most of all, proactive.
Congress’ role here is to pass a supplemental funding bill to provide additional resources and to backfill the funds state and local agencies have already spent. This is one of the top issues I have heard from our public-health leaders in the state.
We also have a responsibility to hold the administration accountable so the federal government provides the best, most transparent response it can. That means making sure federal agencies also have the funds they need to provide tests, equipment and other medical supplies to health officials on the ground.
The White House’s initial supplemental request had no funding to backfill local agencies’ budgets. That means funds are being diverted from other public-health programs. Washington state alone could spend tens of millions of dollars this year responding to the outbreak. The House is currently working on a bill that would provide $6 billion to $8 billion to respond to COVID-19. I am calling on Congress to use a significant portion of those funds to backfill state and local health-department budgets and help them pay for future expenses.
Backfilling budgets is not a new idea. In the 2016 response to the Zika virus, the supplemental request that my colleagues and I approved backfilled state and local health agencies. I pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about this when he testified before Congress last week. While he agreed that the federal government should backfill local agencies, the administration has yet to formally make that request.
My colleagues and I are ready to work with the administration to provide resources to first responders on the ground in Washington and across the country who desperately need them. We cannot delay any longer if we are going to curb the spread of this virus.