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US braces for coronavirus ripple effects; more GOPs back Senate drug prices bill

The U.S. economy is already experiencing the ripple effects from the anxiety over the spread of the new coronavirus, with the hospitality, travel and conference industries taking major hits as cancellations in those sectors continue to mount.

SNL ImageNIAID Director Anthony Fauci with Vice President Mike Pence
Source: AP Photo

The U.S. State Department issued an advisory telling U.S. citizens, particularly Americans with underlying health conditions, not to travel by cruise ship after a number of vessels have had confirmed cases onboard of the virus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

"Absolutely don't get on a cruise ship," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci urged elderly and other medically vulnerable Americans during a March 8 appearance on "Fox News Sunday," repeating that warning on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The impact of the virus at large gatherings hit home at the White House and on Capitol Hill after the Conservative Political Action and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conferences disclosed some attendees at their gatherings had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

A number of Republican lawmakers had attended both conferences.

The White House said neither President Donald Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence had come into contact at the conferences with any of the infected people. But at least one member of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on Twitter that he had shaken hands with one of the infected conference attendees and would self-quarantine.

On March 8, the Massachusetts Department of Health said there were 15 new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 linked to an employee conference held in late February by Biogen Inc.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has infected over 110,000 people and killed more than 3,800. In the U.S., more than 500 people have been infected, with 22 people there now dead.

Paid sick leave

"We're going to start to see other sectors hit by this," said Ronald Klain, who led the Obama administration's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.

The people hardest hit financially by the outbreak will be the hourly wage workers in all sectors, Klain said at a March 6 Washington forum hosted by the Center for American Progress.

"What's going to happen to their incomes?" Klain said. "What this is going to expose is a lot of weaknesses in our economy."

He noted that the $8.3 billion emergency funding package Congress adopted last week does not include any help for those Americans.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., are seeking to fix the problem with a new bill that would require U.S. employers to provide workers with 14 days of paid sick leave to be used during a public health emergency, including the current COVID-19 crisis.

SNL ImagePresident Donald Trump signed the $8.3 billion coronavirus emergency funding package on March 6, with HHS Secretary Alex Azar at his side.
Source: AP Photo

Lack of surge capacity

Former Obama White House adviser Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and chair medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said what worries him most is the U.S. healthcare system's lack of surge capacity.

Even if a moderate number of 20 million Americans — or 6.6% of the U.S. population — become infected with COVID-19, the nation's healthcare system would be quickly overwhelmed, Emanuel said at the Center for American Progress forum.

If 0.5% end up being severely ill, that would be 100,000 patients — more than the number of intensive care unit beds available in the U.S., he said. The nation also has only 65,000 ventilators, Emanuel added.

"We are under-resourced already at the get-go and we're not even talking about a big spread," he said.

If healthcare workers get exposed and must be quarantined for two weeks, "we're way under-resourced," Emanuel added.

"There is nothing like a communicable disease to reveal the problems of a healthcare system," he said.

Republicans support grows for drug pricing bill

Even though Washington has been focused on COVID-19, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, reminded his colleagues that his drug pricing bill remains pending before the chamber.

A dozen Senate Republicans have announced publicly that they support the bill, which Grassley wrote with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the committee's ranking member.

Grassley said a dozen more Republican senators have indicated to him, though not publicly, they would vote for the legislation.

In February, Grassley told reporters he needed at least 25 members of his party on board before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be comfortable bringing the legislation up for a vote.

"I'm optimistic that we'll continue to gain support as senators learn more," Grassley said March 5 on the Senate floor.