Calling for a national mask mandate, Illinois’ governor said state leaders were “forced to play some sort of sick ‘Hunger Games’ game show” while competing for supplies at the outset of the crisis.
WASHINGTON (CN) — The word often on the lips of state and local officials testifying before Congress on Wednesday was “failure” when they were asked to describe the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected over 3 million Americans and killed more than 130,000.
The House Homeland Security Committee hosted Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Jason Shelton, mayor of Tupelo, Mississippi, to examine the federal government’s response since the Covid-19 pandemic first gripped the United States earlier this year.
Pritzker said when it became clear that the virus was not a phenomenon limited to Asia, he and the people of Illinois “fully expected” the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would, at the very least, arm his state in short order with information, equipment, testing capability and possibly personnel to help address the momentous challenge.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
“The federal government wasn’t leading,” Pritzker said. “We were.”
In March, as the pandemic set in, the Democratic governor said he sprang into action by shutting down businesses and schools. Illinois was the second state in the nation to issue stay-at-home orders.
But as days turned into weeks and calls for personal protective equipment mounted in hospitals and nursing homes across his state, Pritzker said no matter which fellow governor he spoke to — Democrat or Republican — he heard a familiar story. Pritzker and other state leaders were forced to compete for life-saving supplies in a worsening pandemic, he said.
“We were paying $5 for masks that should have cost 85 cents. There were states calling other states to figure out if some international businessman offering a warehouse of 2 million N95 masks was a scammer. Many were. In the midst of a global pandemic, states were forced to play some sort of sick ‘Hunger Games’ game show to save the lives of our people,” Pritzker said. “Let me be clear, this is not a reality TV show. These are real things that are happening in the United States in 2020.”
Illinois, home to the nation’s third largest metropolis in Chicago and a major tourism sector, had potential to become a hotspot for the virus like New York City was in the spring. But the state’s curve peaked in week six and as of Wednesday, Pritzker reported that Covid-19 deaths per day in Illinois are down 85% from a high eight weeks ago. The case positivity rate was once 27%, but is now 2.5%. Illinois has counted just over 7,000 deaths.
While this is good news for Illinois, Covid-19 is resurging across more than two dozen states, with intense outbreaks in places like Texas and Florida, where officials eased off restrictions early.
To slow infection, Pritzker called on the Trump administration to install a “national masking mandate.”
“We instituted ours in Illinois on May 1 and were the first in the nation and it aligns with our most significant downward shifts in our infection rate. It’s not too late for the federal government to make an impact. In fact, it’s more important than ever,” he said.
President Donald Trump told Fox News last week while he is “all for masks” he did not think a nationwide mandate was necessary. He opts against wearing one himself and dismissed them since he and “everyone” who comes near him is tested often, he said.
Mask wearing is suggested by most virologists, epidemiologists and public health officials, including the senior most public health experts at the CDC as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force leader.
Jason Shelton, the Democratic mayor of Mississippi’s sixth-largest city, issued an executive order two weeks ago mandating mask-wearing inside of public buildings and businesses in Tupelo.
Shelton, like Pritzker, has been outwardly critical of Trump’s response to the virus. His frustration appears to stem in part from a lack of funding to his city.
As part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, states are promised a minimum of $1.25 billion in pandemic relief. The legislation also provides direct funding to any state or locality with a population of at least 500,000.
But many places like Tupelo — the birthplace of Elvis Presley — are nowhere near that size and are not eligible for direct aid. Smaller cities were not stipulated in the first round of Covid-19 funding. It was expected larger neighboring cities would trickle funds down to them.
“We have been told we have been approved for some funding for different things but as far as actually receiving it, we have not,” Shelton told lawmakers Wednesday. “We have not received any of the 1.2 billion that was sent to the state of Mississippi.”
Basic city services are under fire without those funds and the ability for Tupelo to respond to emergencies, Covid-related or not, is increasingly unlikely without it. Revenues have been badly hit by the pandemic and the state’s economist Darrin Webb predicted last month that Mississippi will see a $1.2 billion drop in tax revenue by mid-2021.
Also testifying Wednesday was Umair Shah, local health authority in Harris County, Texas.
Like Pritzker, Shah said the Trump administration “failed” on a variety of levels but perhaps most egregiously in its botched initial rollout of testing supplies.
The window to save more lives in the beginning of the pandemic opened and shut quickly, Shah explained. Now, as Harris County — home of Houston — has nearly 40,000 confirmed cases and Texas saw a record-breaking spike 24 hours ago, Shah urged the administration not to ignore the criticalness of comprehensive testing as the fall approaches.
When testifying before Congress lately, CDC Director Robert Redfield has extolled contact tracing as a primary driver out of the pandemic. Shah agreed in part but said the Trump administration should focus on putting the cart before the horse.
“Testing is the foundation of this response. Folks that focus on contact tracing and all these other terms in public health as if they were new — these are all things we have done for decades. The foundation remains testing. Testing gives you cases and cases allow you to determine, after investigating, who to contact,” Shah said. “That’s when contact tracers come into play. Then they reach out to individuals to get tested and the whole thing gets started again.”