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Q: What is COVID-19?

A: In January the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency of international concern regarding the outbreak of a new coronavirus detected in China. Coronaviruses belong to a large family of viruses, ranging from the common cold to acute respiratory illnesses. On Feb. 11, 2020, the WHO named this novel coronavirus COVID-19. Since then, Chinese health officials have reported tens of thousands of cases within China, spread via person-to-person contact, originating from where the illness first was detected, Wuhan City in Hubei province. To date, COVID-19 has infected nearly 75,000 people in China, killing more than 2,000 individuals. The U.S. government acted swiftly to protect Americans and contain the outbreak from spreading into the United States. On Jan. 31, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a public health emergency and issued guidance to healthcare professionals across the country. What’s more, the United States took unprecedented steps to stop the disease from spreading into the U.S. by restricting travel to and from China. As of Feb. 2, the U.S. government suspended entry of foreign nationals who had been to China within the previous two weeks. Americans returning from China are subject to health monitoring and possible quarantine for up to 14 days. The CDC says symptoms may appear from 2 to 14 days after exposure, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. To date, the CDC reports the immediate risk remains low to the American public. All Americans are advised to follow precautionary steps to stop the spread of germs and health care providers to follow infection control protocols in their community health settings.

Q: As one of Iowa’s U.S. senators, what’s your involvement with this public health emergency?  

A: First, I kept tabs on several Iowans who were seeking to return to the United States from the affected region in China. Americans traveling or working abroad depend on their elected federal representatives and U.S. State Department to serve as a trusted resource in crisis situations, such as a disease outbreak. To date, no Iowan has been diagnosed with the virus. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I took the opportunity to weigh in with HHS Secretary Alex Azar about a critical mission of the federal agency when he testified before the committee in February. In addition to weekly updates from HHS, my office scheduled a classified briefing from HHS about the government’s response to the virus. Based on what I learned from that briefing, I’ve encouraged the Intelligence Community to provide more access to the HHS Office of National Security so that the federal government is better able to assess and mitigate threats to U.S. national security, including public health. As a long time watchdog of the federal bureaucracy, I’ve focused my oversight and legislative efforts to make sure government works effectively for the American people. When it comes to public health crises, from drug addiction to the spread of contagious diseases, the American people entrust the government to keep U.S. citizens and families safe. Although the coronavirus is not yet a pandemic, we’re not yet out of the woods. I’m concerned China appears to have tried to cover up the initial outbreak and may still not be accurately sharing the size, scale and scope of the pathogen’s reach with other countries. Moreover, China has rejected offers from the CDC to come to China and help tackle the outbreak, and continues to block the WHO from communicating updates directly with nearby Taiwan for purely political reasons. As the two biggest economies in the world, the United States and China must partner efforts to avert the spread of a global pandemic that would pose grave risk to human health and the global economy. If China fails to share accurate data with the international community, or the U.S. intelligence community over-classifies information or doesn’t share enough of it with relevant public health agencies, the response to the virus could falter. In addition, I’m keeping close check on the federal government’s efforts to control transmission of the virus from imported goods. Americans depend on the Food and Drug Administration to ensure the integrity of the U.S. drug supply and medical devices. To date, the FDA reports no evidence of contamination by imported food or drugs, for humans or pets. However, the FDA also pulled inspectors from China when the State Department warned against travel to China. I’m keeping in close touch with the FDA to ensure safety and quality checks on our supply chains aren’t compromised during the outbreak. As always, Congress must keep check to ensure the federal government has the resources it needs to effectively and efficiently serve and protect the American people.

Author: Charles Grassley

Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the United States Senate since 1980.