Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked the Trump administration what it was doing to plan for a potential travel ban to block travelers from China in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus in the U.S.
Travelers being screened at an airport in China in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
As of Jan. 26, at least five people in the U.S. were confirmed with having the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. Health officials in Washington state, Chicago and Arizona have all reported one case each, while California has reported two patients infected with the virus.
All five of the patients recently traveled to the U.S. from Wuhan, China, where 2019-nCoV was first identified.
Over 2,800 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV have been reported worldwide, with most of those patients in China. All 80 of the people who have died were in China, including a doctor who treated patients at a hospital in Wuhan.
"Given the rate at which public health officials are capable of gaining insight into the severity of such an outbreak, can you offer guidance as to when and how the federal government would decide to implement travel restrictions in the event that an outbreak like this one merited them?" Hawley asked in a Jan. 24 letter to the secretaries of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, State and Transportation.
Hawley also raised the issue of travel restrictions with top U.S. public health officials during a Jan. 24 briefing for senators on Capitol Hill, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confirmed.
Fauci said both he and Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the senators that imposing travel restrictions was "not a good idea at this time."
NIAID Director Anthony Fauci
"That would create a lot of disruption economically and otherwise and it wouldn't necessarily have a positive effect," Fauci told S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The longtime NIAID chief, who is considered the federal government's top infectious disease expert, said the Senate briefing was generally positive.
"Obviously, senators have different opinions about what we should or should not be doing, but in general, I would say there was satisfaction" about the federal government's response to the 2019-nCoV outbreak, Fauci said.
"I can't say that every single one of them was 100% satisfied," he added.
Fauci said he also told the senators about NIAID's partnership with Moderna Inc. to produce a vaccine against 2019-nCoV.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he wants additional screenings of travelers at U.S. airports coming from China and closer scrutiny of products being imported from there.
The Florida Republican also urged the Trump administration to declare a national public health emergency for 2019-nCoV, saying in a Jan. 24 statement that it was time to "get serious about the threat of coronavirus."
Last week, the World Health Organization declined to declare the 2019-nCoV outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, though its director said such a designation could be employed later.
Lapse in opioid emergency?
Meanwhile, HHS is disputing a report that it let the public health emergency declaration for the opioid crisis lapse.
The declaration, first put in place in October 2017, must be renewed every 90 days by the HHS secretary.
On Jan. 23, Politico reported that two unidentified sources said HHS had mistakenly let the declaration lapse for more than a week, but rectified the matter after it realized the failure.
An HHS spokesperson told S&P Global Market Intelligence on Jan. 24 that the missing declaration was a "clerical error."
Later that day, the agency posted a new public health emergency declaration online, dating it Jan. 24, though it stated the effective date as Jan. 14.
HHS had similarly failed in July 2018 to post the emergency declaration online in a timely manner — a lapse that went on for nearly a month.
After S&P Global Market Intelligence inquired about the missing document on Aug. 15, 2018, the agency later posted the declaration. That document was initially dated July 19, 2018, but was later switched for a document dated July 23, 2018.
It is unclear what effect having the opioids emergency declaration in place has made.
U.S. Supreme Court
No ACA filing extension for GOP attorneys general
The U.S. Supreme Court may have opened the door, if only slightly, to the possibility it could still hear Democrats' appeal this term against a Republican lawsuit that is seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act.
On Jan. 24, the justices denied a motion by the Republican state attorneys general that are challenging the constitutionality of the ACA to extend their time for submitting briefs in the case.
The Republican attorneys general, which are up against a Feb. 3 deadline to file their responses, sought a 43-day extension. But the Supreme Court declined to grant it.
That decision followed the court's Jan. 21 ruling denying a request by a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general and Democrats in the U.S. House to fast-track the case — a ruling may leave the decade-old healthcare law in limbo until after the 2020 U.S. elections.
But after the court gets a look at each side's briefs in the case, "it may decide that it is appropriate to grant review and decide the case this term," the Democratic attorneys general told the Supreme Court.
Denying the extension request would preserve that option, they said in a Jan. 22 filing with the court.