Saturday was a beautiful, spring day in Washington. People were out at Eastern Market and walking the National Mall, careful to keep a safe distance. They were relieved to escape their apartments and actually see someone other than immediate family and cable TV talking heads.
My world was not as sunny.
The Senate was in session as we tried to agree on a Marshall Plan for our hospitals and a $1 trillion rescue of a faltering economy.
COVID-19, or coronavirus, has brought most of America to a halt. Restaurants and bars are closed. Traffic is minimal and travel is out of the question. We wash our hands regularly as we sing two rounds of “Happy Birthday.” Plastic bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere. Meanwhile senators and their staffs debate the right approach to buying time (eight weeks? six months?) to weather a virus that is marching around the world.
Mitt Romney, Republican senator from Utah, saw me on the Senate floor and asked me to read a Medium article he forwarded titled, “Evidence over hysteria-COVID-19” by Aaron Ginn, who identifies himself as a founder of the Lincoln Network and part of Mitt Romney’s team in his 2012 presidential campaign.
As the title suggests, Ginn’s article is skeptical of the threat and perceived duration of COVID-19. He concludes that people should fear the government more than the virus. With a wealth of graphs, he assaults “abundance of caution” policymakers, singling out closed restaurants and schools, shelter-in-place policies, and the demise of air travel as overblown reactions.
Ginn’s views reflect an America divided on politics and just as divided on science. But in the contest of experts on COVID-19, I’m putting all my chips on Dr. Anthony Fauci’s square. He is the respected head of infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health, who started under President Ronald Reagan and has served with distinction under administrations of both political parties. He is our government’s lead on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Fauci tells us things will get worse before they get better, and a strong response now can avoid a medical disaster later. Contagion and infection are as basic as gravity, and though this respiratory pathogen is in many ways a novel threat, our defenses of social distance and hand washing can dull, if not defeat, its reach.
Some suggest that since the virus generally spares younger victims and children from a deadly outcome, we should focus our attention on those over 60 — who are most likely to have the most serious and dangerous health outcomes — while letting the rest of America revive the bar scene, open schools, and return to a normal life. That overlooks several points: those apparently healthy young people could still be asymptomatic carriers and many families have older parents or grandparents in the home as well as their kids. It also fails to overlook new statistics out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which show that 38 percent of those sick enough to be hospitalized in the United States from coronavirus are under the age of 55.
During this public health crisis, I have spoken with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on a daily basis. He has repeatedly asked for help in receiving the test kits and personal protective equipment for health care providers that have been promised by Washington. And I have been pushing our federal agencies daily to fulfill this need. Without more expansive testing, it is impossible to draw credible conclusions about the pace of infection or areas of our state that need to be targeted. It is next to impossible to follow the President who, on one day, brags about tests for everyone, and then reminds the governors, when they ask for him to deliver the promised help, that he is not a “shipping clerk.”
None of the decisions our governors face are easy. And, unfortunately, where you sit politically can determine where you stand on this issue. If you are skeptical of the public health danger, you take your family out to a restaurant and post a photo as did the governor of Oklahoma. If you want to mock the Nanny State, you wear a gas mask on the floor of the U.S. House and then hope people don’t realize that you had to self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.
But Gov. Pritzker and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio decided to err on the side of science and saving lives. They closed the schools, limited the crowds, and made social distancing a stated policy. Gov. Pritzker shared with me some of the worst-case scenario numbers if our policies are ineffective in slowing the viral spread. One could not hear those numbers without appreciating how an Italy-like outcome would create devastating results for thousands of Illinois families.
When this national emergency is behind us — and I pray that will be soon — we need to take inventory of what we have learned about preparing for the next pandemic and investing today in the people and resources that we must count on to protect us in the future.
Dick Durbin is a U.S. senator representing Illinois.
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