Senate sends COVID-19 spending bill to Trump on 96-1 vote
WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate voted 96-1 on Thursday to approve an $8.3 billion emergency aid package to combat the coronavirus outbreak, sending the measure to President Donald Trump’s desk.
The president is expected to sign off on the package no later than Friday. The funding aimed at expediting the response to the outbreak couldn’t come soon enough: the U.S. death toll from the virus crept up to 11 people Thursday – 10 have died in Washington state and one in California.
Only one lawmaker, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against the measure. Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Paul proposed an amendment that would have drawn funds away from international aid programs to pay for the coronavirus response but it was soundly defeated.
Republican lawmakers met with public health officials ahead of the Senate vote and Senator Rick Scott reportedly said that the promise by the Trump administration to have a million coronavirus test kits ready for distribution Friday would not be met.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is meeting with members of both the House and Senate daily to provide reports and updates on the status of the outbreak as well as updates on the test kit supply chain.
Kits are expected to be dropped in the mail to public health labs by the end of this week but there could be further delays as officials must receive, process and verify them.
Azar said Thursday that with the initial distribution, 15,000 people will be tested early next week. By the end of next week, he said he believes there will be enough kits distributed to test 75,000 people.
“That means a doctor wishing to test for the virus would reach out to the lab and notify of them of ‘suspect cases,” Azar said.
From there, how the test is conducted would be worked out between the patient and doctor. In order to build out distribution, IDT, the test kit manufacturer currently working with the CDC, will soon get authorization to develop the tests en masse and market them.
Roughly 95,000 people across 81 countries have contracted the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and over 3,000 people have died. But in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, mortality and infection rates are reportedly shrinking, according to the World Health Organization.
Less than 1% of people who contract the flu die, but the coronavirus has killed 3.4% of those diagnosed, the WHO said.
During a Thursday press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases, said that people must remember the risk to the American public as a whole is still generally low.
“When you look at what we are seeing – and we are following it literally on a daily basis – this issue of community spread as we’re seeing in Seattle – there, the risk of getting infected is a bit higher. But quantitively, when you look at the country as a whole, the risk of getting infected is low,” Fauci said.
The risk of “getting into trouble,” he added, varies widely. If you are a young, healthy individual, the need for medical intervention is low.
That bears out in data the CDC is receiving from China and other nations, like South Korea, Iran and Italy.
Fauci flagged particularly vulnerable groups Thursday including those with compromised immune systems, people receiving chemotherapy, and those with diabetes, HIV/AIDs and other chronic illnesses.
The aid package passed in the Senate does not specifically mandate that tests are covered by insurance but only that testing is affordable. This prompted Congresswoman Katie Porter, D-Calif., to tell reporters Thursday that she agreed with recommendations from Seema Verma, head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, that insurers should be required to cover the tests.
Senator Paul’s proposed amendment sought to pay for the emergency aid by rescinding all $8 billion in funds flagged for international programs including the Inter-American Foundation, or IAF. IAF channels U.S. assistance to poor and marginalized groups in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Paul argued from the floor that funding for IAF was repetitive since the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, already uses congressionally approved assistance for similar initiatives.
Ultimately, the amendment was killed, 80-16.
Arguing the amendment would “decimate” critical programs that advance U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy goals around the world, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy recalled words once uttered to him by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
“‘If you want to cut foreign aid, buy me more bullets.’ He made it very clear that there are areas in the world where what we do keeps us from going into combat,” the Democrat said, clutching a letter from the U.S Global Leadership Coalition, a group comprised of over 500 businesses and nonprofits spanning 50 states, demanding senators reject Paul’s amendment.