Hunker down. Wash your hands frequently.
As Marylanders and everyone in this country learns more about the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) that is spreading around the world, it’s helpful for us all to heed this sound advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is based in Bethesda.
I would add to this: Be patient. Be smart. Think of those more vulnerable than you before you engage in activities that might put someone’s health at risk. This new virus, which causes respiratory illness, is especially dangerous to those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, as well as older adults. In Maryland and elsewhere, we have had instances of both personal transmission and community spread.
This week the Senate passed the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which ensures free COVID-19 testing for uninsured and federally and privately insured individuals as well as paid leave for workers who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation enhances unemployment insurance and strengthens safety net programs like SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid to help low-income families during this time.
To maximize the resources available to confront this virus and its repercussions, on March 5, Congress approved $8.3 billion in supplemental funding for states and local governments, a boost in research for NIH, as well as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The bill, which was signed into law quickly, funds efforts to mitigate the current spread of coronavirus by preparing communities, supporting small businesses impacted by the outbreak, and refilling critical health care accounts that had been raided by the Trump administration in the early response to the coronavirus threat. The supplemental funding bill also includes my legislation that allows for greater use of telehealth services during this public health emergency. This will enable Medicare beneficiaries, many of whom are at high risk for serious illness related to COVID-19, to see their providers via telehealth for checkups, mental health counseling, and chronic disease management. That same day, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland after the first cases were reported in our state.
Less than one week later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. This last Friday, after requests from Congress and the recommendation of public health officials, President Donald Trump finally declared a national emergency related to COVID-19. This declaration came with new travel restrictions between the U.S. and Europe, and has since been followed up by guidance from the CDC recommending that for the next eight weeks, organizers (whether individuals or groups) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 10 people or more.
Life will not be “business as usual” for a while. If you are a parent with children now home from school, or you have tried to go to the grocery store for basics, you know that things are already different than they were only one week ago. Most professional sports are on hold, bars and restaurants are suspending operations or shifting to delivery or pick-up only, and most museums and public spaces are closed.
The goal of all this is to “flatten the curve” of how fast COVID-19 spreads so that we do not overwhelm our hospitals and health system. For some, these major changes are inconveniences while they “hunker down” at home. For many others, in the service industry, small business owners, or the hourly workers for whom missed hours means missed pay, these community-wide shutdowns will threaten their livelihood, cut them off from needed school lunches, and add immensely to their anxiety. Congress is working to finalize additional funding to address these specific concerns, including more comprehensive testing, expanded paid sick leave and strengthened unemployment insurance.
We must support our small businesses, which will be among the hardest-hit institutions in our communities. Unlike large corporations with money in the bank, small businesses operate on narrow margins that make them particularly vulnerable to economic disruptions caused by this public health crisis. With many small businesses already reporting plummeting foot traffic, especially our local restaurants, Congress must act swiftly to provide these businesses with capital so they can stay afloat. As the senior Democrat on the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, I was pleased that the emergency supplemental funding bill passed earlier this month included $20 million for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which gives the agency the resources to guide small businesses through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan process; for more information on SBA’s COVID-19 small business support click here. Those funds are necessary, but insufficient. Senate Democrats are still pushing for broader support through long-term loans, deferments, refinancing and grants so small businesses can cover their overhead costs during this crisis, including paid sick leave for employees. Team Maryland urged the Small Business Administration to quickly approve emergency disaster assistance for Maryland small businesses that have been impacted. This will inject millions of dollars into our local small businesses and may be the difference of whether many can survive this crisis.
A word about testing. President Trump’s desire to deflate artificially the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has set us back significantly. Rather than ramping up testing capabilities in January, we find ourselves in March trying to catch up. Last week, when I met with public health officials from around Maryland, it was clear to me that we do not have enough tests available to test everyone who would like to be tested. While state officials and local hospitals ramp up their testing capability, please be patient with your health care provider. Locally, I led a letter of DMV lawmakers to President Trump this week urging that the National Capital Region be prioritized for early locations of federally-supported COVID-19 testing sites. As a country, we are weeks behind where we should be, but we should get caught up, especially with the funding and directive being passed by Congress this week.
If you believe you or a family member may be experiencing symptoms, please contact your health provider by telephone first, before going to the doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or hospital. This enables providers to prepare for your arrival and not endanger others in the waiting room. At this time, the Maryland Department of Health, some hospitals and commercials labs are providing testing for COVID-19.
We are all in this together. Public health experts are making it clear that our national situation is going to get a bit worse before it gets better. This is especially true as testing ramps up and we have a better picture of how many individuals in our country have contracted the COVID-19 virus. We are staying clear-eyed but focused on our common goal to keep all of us safe down to individual neighborhoods in every state. The impact of this virus is all encompassing and it will take a concerted effort from everyone to flatten the curve so that we can move from response to recovery. In times of emergencies, America needs to do what is right for the people of this nation. Thank you. Stay safe.