CT lawmakers pan Trump administration response to coronavirus

CT Mirror

Washington – The federal government is trying to blunt the impact of the coronavirus, but Connecticut lawmakers remain critical of the Trump administration’s response to the epidemic as state officials wait for more help and guidance.

“For years, many of us have warned that Trump’s attacks on global health programs, and his complete disinterest in protecting America from pandemic diseases, would have consequences for our nation’s safety”said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “Now, the day of consequence is arriving.”

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Department of Public Health announced Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that several Connecticut residents who have recently returned from China – but are not showing any symptoms of the virus – are currently in a 14-day period of self-monitoring, which includes daily health and temperature checks. The health department said the people are in the state, but declined to answer additional questions about them.

And Connecticut will soon receive a coronavirus testing kit from the federal government to be deployed at the state public health laboratory in Rocky Hill. That kit will allow the state to test up to 800 people for coronavirus on-site instead of sending samples to the CDC, as the state did earlier this month with two people who had traveled to China and fell ill. They both had the flu.

More money needed?

The coronavirus has prompted the federal government to screen passengers from China, impose travel bans, and place many travelers from China in temporary quarantine at military bases. The federal government is also rushing to develop a vaccine and declared a public health emergency, allowing states more flexibility in reassigning health care workers whose salaries are paid in part by the federal government.

But members of the Connecticut congressional delegation are asking the Trump administration to request emergency funds from Congress to combat coronavirus and to brief them in detail about what’s being done.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, chairman of an appropriations panel responsible for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget, lauded the Trump administration for declaring a health emergency. But she said there’s a need for additional resources.

“We strongly urge the administration to transmit a request to Congress for emergency supplemental appropriations to respond to this public health emergency,” DeLauro wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

She gave him a Feb. 10 deadline to do so.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, also said response to the coronavirus outbreak requires more money.

“A ‘task force’ led by HHS Secretary Azar is simply insufficient. Epidemics like the coronavirus require a whole-of-government response,” Murphy said.

Murphy has also teamed up with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to ask Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn to ensure the agency has the necessary tools to guarantee the safety and supply of pharmaceuticals, food and medical supplies being imported from China “in light of the growing epidemic of the novel coronavirus.”

The senators said that in 2018, the United States imported more than $12.7 billion worth of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, medical devices and food products from China.

“What steps has the FDA taken to ensure that there is not a shortage of essential pharmaceuticals or medical supplies, should the supply of these products from China be disrupted?” the senators asked Azar. “Has the FDA coordinated with other companies in an effort to potentially fill any supply shortages?”

And last month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Murphy, and 28 other Senate Democrats, sent a letter to Azar asking him to keep Congress updated with the latest information regarding the severity of the disease. They also asked Azar about the nation’s capacity to diagnose cases, and what steps were being taken to prepare U.S. health care workers.

Reacting in real-time

Professor Albert Ko of the Yale School of Public Health said the U.S. government is doing a good job of responding to the outbreak by imposing travel bans and screening those who have traveled from China.

“Certainly, the U.S. government, and especially the CDC, is taking this very seriously,” he said.

Ko also noted that the National Institutes of Health is involved in attempts to swiftly develop a vaccine.

But he said creating a coronavirus vaccine will take a while and in the interim the focus should be on searching for ways to treat those who are ill.  Many of the fatalities in China were elderly people, or those compromised by other illnesses, Ko said.

Ko also predicted the coronavirus death rate is likely to exceed that of the flu.

Like others, Ko said nobody knows how to treat or prevent the new virus.

“And we don’t know how long it’s going to last and how widespread it will be,” he said.

The CDC says that among the more than 200 people tested for the virus in the United States only 12 were found to have the coronavirus, also known as the 2019-nCoV.

Nine of those who tested positive traveled to Wuhan City, China, ground zero for the pandemic, and two others had not traveled there but had been in close contact with patients with confirmed coronavirus.

Yet new cases in the United States are expected. On Sunday, China reported there have been more than 40,000 cases and 908 people have died of coronavirus in that nation. That surpasses the death count of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed 774 people around the world.

“As frustrating as it may be, it is important to understand that what we know about this epidemic and the virus that causes it remains uncertain and preliminary,” said Ronald A. Klain, a former White House Ebola Response Coordinator.

“We know much less about coronavirus today than we did about Ebola in 2014,” Klain said at a recent congressional hearing.

That includes whether the new virus can be transmitted before a patient has symptoms and what its fatality rate is, said Alessandro Vespignani, who models infectious diseases at Boston’s Northeastern University.

Symptoms of the coronavirus mimic the flu or a bad cold — coughs, runny noses, sore throats, headaches, fever and general lethargy. This makes it easy to confuse with more common respiratory illnesses.

“They are hard to spot because they look like many other diseases,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, said before the House Foreign Relations Committee last week. “It’s very hard to interrupt them at borders. You would need to have complete surveillance in order to do that. And we simply don’t have that.”

Coronaviruses are commonly found in animals, but there are several that can jump from animals to humans. The virus is believed to have originated in bats and transferred to humans through some other animal.

Researchers at the South China Agricultural University say the pangolin, a mammal illegally trafficked in large numbers for its scales and meat, may be the link. But other scientists are questioning that research.

CT colleges on alert

Connecticut’s colleges are taking precautions because some of their students traveled to China during the semester break.

Yale, which has about 960 Chinese students, has asked students who have traveled to China recently to complete a special registration form and to self-isolate for 14 days after returning from their trips.

“We continue to work closely with the Connecticut Department of Public Health to track the overall situation regarding the coronavirus and to protect the health and well-being of the Yale community,” said spokeswoman Karen Peart.

And the University of Connecticut, which has about 2,700 graduate and undergraduate students from China, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, encouraged those who had traveled home to check in with school health facilities each day for 14 days upon their return.