“This could be bad.”
With those words, public health officials on Tuesday urged Americans to prepare for the coronavirus to spread across U.S. communities and bring with it potentially significant disruptions to their lives.
“It’s not so much a question of it this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. She later added: “We are asking the American public to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.”
But as health officials were asking the public to get ready for a possible domestic outbreak, lawmakers in both parties were questioning whether the Trump administration is adequately preparing to deal with the threat from the virus that has infected nearly 80,000 people in 37 countries and caused more than 2,600 deaths. There are 57 confirmed cases in the United States.
The Trump administration on Monday night sent Congress a request for $1.25 billion in emergency supplemental funding to combat the spread of the virus. The request, detailed in a three-page letter, also calls for shifting $535 million in unused money that had been designated to fight Ebola toward the coronavirus efforts. Hundreds of millions more would be redirected from other health programs and government agencies, bringing the total coronavirus response funding to at least $2.5 billion.
The money to be shifted under the administration plan reportedly includes $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funds heating for poor families. “Democrats find this request particularly galling, because it would take money away from another program designed to protect people’s well-being, under the duress of the coronavirus threat,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman write.
Democrats have called for emergency funding for weeks, but the administration initially said that no additional money was necessary. In Monday night’s letter, acting White House budget director Russell Vought says that, so far, no agency has been inhibited in its response effort due to lack of resources or authority. And administration officials reportedly told senators Tuesday that the White House would seek additional funding as part of fiscal 2021 spending packages.
Still, lawmakers in both parties expressed concern that the request for $1.25 billion in new funding falls well short of what’s needed right now:
• Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar Tuesday that the amount could be dangerously insufficient. "It seems to me at the outset that this request for the money, the supplemental, is lowballing it, possibly, and you can't afford to do that," Shelby said during a hearing on the HHS budget. "If you lowball something like this, you'll pay for it later.”
• “The President’s request for coronavirus response funding is long overdue and completely inadequate to the scale of this emergency,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, adding that the Trump administration had “left critical positions in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security vacant” for nearly two years. “Weeks after the Trump Budget called for slashing the CDC budget during this coronavirus epidemic, this undersized funding request shows an ongoing failure to understand urgent public health needs,” Pelosi said.
• Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for at least $3.1 billion in funding and for the administration to appoint a “czar” to oversee the response.
• House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) called the administration’s request “woefully insufficient” and joined Pelosi in criticizing the proposal to shift existing funds. “It is profoundly disturbing that their answer now is to raid money Congress has designated for other critical public health priorities,” Lowey said. “House Democrats will move quickly to enact a robust package that fully addresses this global emergency without allowing this administration to steal from other necessary programs.”