House Passes $8.3B Funding Package to Combat Coronavirus

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The House of Representatives voted 415-2 Wednesday afternoon to approve a massive spending package to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, following several days of bitter partisan infighting.

The $8.3 billion funding package is a significant increase from the roughly $2 billion package initially proposed by the White House. The Senate intends to pass the measure by the end of the week, at which point President Donald Trump is expected to sign off on the funding.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, several GOP lawmakers said they were opposed to the funding bill because of the high dollar amount, arguing lawmakers should start with the lower amount initially requested by the Trump administration. In the end, just two House Republicans – Congressmen Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado – voted against the spending bill. Neither lawmaker immediately returned a request comment.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., offered a peek inside of the supplemental appropriations bill Wednesday morning.

At least $500 million will be earmarked for medical supplies and equipment for hospitals as well as state and local governments, he said.

Schumer also said he expects the bill will flag $350 million just for virus hotbeds in the U.S. Community health centers will receive $100 million in assistance and over $950 million is set aside in the package just to repay state and local governments for the investments they have already made to respond to the outbreak.

According to the bill, most emergency supplemental funding will extend through Sept. 30. Other funds will extend further out, like $2.2 billion allotted through 2022 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to respond to the coronavirus both domestically and internationally.

Once passed, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in consultation with CDC Director Robert Redfield, must furnish a report to the House and Senate committees on appropriations every two weeks for a year – until further notice – to keep money flowing.

Azar must also provide Congress with a detailed spending plan with 30 days from the bill’s enactment.

The bill provides the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Environmental Health Services with extra funding through September 2024. Funding is specifically allotted to those agencies for “worker based training to prevent and reduce exposure of hospital employees, emergency first responders and other workers who are risk of exposure to coronavirus through their work duties.”

Ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the bill commits a minimum of $3 billion just for the development of treatments and a vaccine.

A $300 million block of funding inside the bill is also intended to give low-income Americans a shot at access to the vaccine if they can’t afford it, she said.

A vaccine is still months, if not at least a year, away from being developed, according to testimony given to Congress on Tuesday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday morning before the funding deal was struck, a duo of public health experts and the former director of the CDC under President George W. Bush testified before lawmakers about the need to move preparedness efforts ahead more quickly.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, told lawmakers on the committee that the funding is critical for setting up diagnostic and patient processing systems.

Long term care and assisted living facilities where residents are largely geriatric or have compromised immune systems are already at significant risk, she noted. But that risk can be reduced by getting local and state governments to assist facilities with improving or building out their infectious control programs.

Staff must be retrained and creative ideas about how to quarantine or isolate people are also needed, Ezike said.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the former CDC director under the Bush administration, told the Committee on Homeland Security Wednesday she is optimistic that the scientists working on a vaccine will come up with one but there is still safety and clinical testing to get through, not to mention regulatory processes on the manufacturing side.

Unlike a vaccine for other viruses like SARS, which was needed for a comparatively small number of people, a coronavirus vaccine would be needed for the entire world, she said.

“What concerns me is we are seeing some overpromising and we need not alarm people when promises don’t actually come to fruition on the timeline people are expected,” Gerberding testified. “We need to be straightforward about the challenge ahead: work hard, invest, support those doing the work. But this vaccine is not going to be in American arms for a long time.”

Ahead of a vote on the emergency funding bill, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the coronavirus task force, met Wednesday morning with President Trump, several executives from the airline industry and Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to discuss how airlines were preparing to handle impacts of the coronavirus.

Pence said that the nation’s “greatest concern” is testing for the virus. For now, he said, just 2,500 test kits are available for distribution and most testing will be conducted at state and university laboratories.

During a Monday briefing at the White House, Stephen Hahn, director of the Food and Drug Administration, explained that a single kit allows for just 500 tests. Factoring in the figure announced by Pence, that would mean that just over 1.2 million people could feasibly be tested.

The funding vote was preceded by more unsettling news as California reported its first coronavirus death. The person, who was tested last month, was elderly and had underlying health conditions – two factors that make contracting the virus more deadly.

Los Angeles County declared a health emergency Wednesday as the total number of infections there jumped to seven.

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