Hassan: 'We Are at War With an Invisible Virus'

Mar 25, 2020

Credit Allegra Boverman / NHPR

Lawmakers in Washington are moving forward on a $2 trillion coronavirus bill, the largest stimulus package in U.S. history. The bill would provide direct payments to taxpayers, loans to small businesses and create a $500 billion corporate bailout fund.

Senator Maggie Hassan spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the bill, and about whether she thinks New Hampshire is ready for a shelter-in-place order.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Senate leaders and the White House came to an agreement overnight on an economic stimulus bill. It's the biggest in history. But is it, in your view, going to be enough to keep the economy from getting any worse?

Look, it's a really important bipartisan package, and I think it's going to help in critical ways right now. First and foremost, it really has significant resources for our health care system and our health care providers. It puts individuals and workers first really focusing on cash payments and expanded unemployment insurance. And it has real help for small businesses, including incentives that will help small businesses keep people employed. So it's a really important package, but I think all of us realize that this is a quickly evolving situation. The pandemic has not yet peaked here in the United States. And we need to stand ready to tackle the next challenge as we learn more about how this is actually going to evolve and impact our economy and our health.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that this was not a stimulus package necessarily, but an emergency relief bill. Do you see a difference between those two terms?

Well, I certainly think that this is more of a disaster relief and emergency relief and stabilization package than anything else, because what we know is that our economy had some really strong fundamentals going before the pandemic hit. And what we're trying to do is keep people steady and stable while we do what's necessary to beat the pandemic, to get through this stage. We are at war with an invisible virus, essentially, and that means we absolutely have to do things like social distancing and staying at home. The economic impact of that is obviously really, really serious. And yet we know that we can't have a stable and healthy economy if we don't take care of our health first and our health care system. So we have no choice but to slow down our personal behavior and slow down business in some ways. And that means we have to stabilize things. And that's what this package does.

So far Governor Sununu here in New Hampshire has insisted that things be voluntary, at least for now. He keeps insisting that now isn't the time to call for a shelter-in-place order in New Hampshire. Do you agree?

Well, first of all, I'm really grateful to all of our public health workers and health care providers who have been working around the clock. We've been working with them and with the governor and the federal delegation. I think this has to be a public health based decision and the governor has to deal with facts on the ground as they develop in New Hampshire. What I have been trying to emphasize to people is that we all have a part to play regardless of what the government tells people to do or not. We all run the risk of spreading this virus when we don't know we have it because people can be asymptomatic but still have the virus and be able to spread it or may just have a very mild case of it. And we also may have come in contact with somebody who has the virus and unknowingly spread it to others. And since we know that it can be absolutely serious and severe and in some cases fatal for especially high-risk people or people with pre-existing medical conditions, it's incumbent on all of us not only to protect our own health, but to keep from unknowingly spreading the virus to somebody else. And that's where social distancing and staying home really comes in.

Certainly. And if a shelter-in-place order is dependent on a set of facts, what facts should elected leaders be looking at before deciding one is actually necessary. What fact would you be looking at?

Well, I'd be looking to advice and projections from public health experts. Right? So how fast is the number of cases in our state or within a health care system growing? What is our bed capacity? What percentage of the population do we see being hospitalized? And those are really the factors that public health experts look at. And what has the impact of shelter-in-place been in other parts of the country that are doing it? In terms of slowing the growth of the virus and the spread of it. At the end of the day, this is not only about protecting our health and the health of high-risk individuals, it's also about trying to make sure we don't overwhelm our health care system. The thing I have been asking people to think about is in addition to concerns about high-risk people being really, seriously impacted by this virus, I've been asking people to think about the capacity of the health care system overall. If you get in a car accident or have a heart attack or something like that and you get to the emergency room and there are no doctors or nurses available to help you because the hospital's been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, that's really detrimental and difficult and undermines our safety and our health, too. So that's why this is so important.

Let me ask you a little bit more about hospitals, because one of the biggest issues we keep hearing about again and again is the lack of supplies that hospitals have. Many private hospitals are asking for donations. What would it take to ramp up domestic production of ventilators, personal protective equipment, other necessary gear?

Well, certainly this package has funding to help us do that. But at the end of the day, this is about, in my view, the president actually implementing the Defense Production Act. That is something that the federal delegation, along with Governor Sununu, did together on Friday. We wrote the president and asked him to actually implement that act because that would allow him to order increased production in the manufacturing sectors that have the capacity to do that. And as importantly, it would put the federal government in the position of coordinating the response, because one of the things we know is we're seeing surges in different parts of the country and we need to have shared information and coordination. So not only are we ramping up production of this equipment, but we are also getting it to the places that need it in real time. And so I'll continue to push the White House to coordinate the effort, because that's really, I think, essential to our capacity here. But in the meantime, we are trying to get resources to the front line so that they have more purchasing power as manufacturers are beginning to produce more of this equipment.

Final question, we only have about a minute left, Senator Hassan. This stimulus package, this coronavirus bill includes some money for individuals making under a certain amount to help them weather the storm. Might be especially helpful for those who are unemployed. If this bill passes and is signed by the president, will the stimulus checks arrive in Americans' bank accounts in time to pay the rent?

Well, what we did in the bill is say that if somebody has filed their 2018 tax returns with the IRS, which an awful lot of the people in this group will have done, and they have direct deposit information already on file with the IRS, those transfers should be made quickly. It will take longer if people don't have that information on file with the IRS, but it is still possible to get. We are trying very hard to get all of this aid out the door as fast as we can.