NH Senator Jeanne Shaheen On How Congress Is Working To Support American Families During Coronavirus

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 19, 2020 1:32 pm

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a $100 billion bill to boost testing for the coronavirus and to guarantee paid sick leave for millions of workers impacted by the outbreak. Now, lawmakers are working on a $1 trillion dollar economic stimulus package on top of that. WGBH News' Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen to learn more about the Senate's response to the pandemic. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: First, I'm curious how members of Congress are conducting business in this whole time of social distancing. We know now that two members of the House have tested positive. It can't be easy getting this done in close quarters.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, everybody's working remotely. Our staff is all working remotely, and that's true if you go through Senate office buildings and the Capitol. It's very quiet. There are very few people there because only essential folks are there. So what we're doing is trying to make sure that we can put together a package. There is urgent need and we need to do something to help those people who have been laid off, those small businesses. You just reported about malls closing in Massachusetts. That means there are a lot of people who need emergency assistance if they're going to keep paying their bills. so we've got to act quickly here in Congress.

Mathieu: This first piece of legislation that I mentioned, $100 billion on top of the sick leave for millions of workers boost testing for the coronavirus, this is a critical part of the process that we're in, Senator, is getting more test kits out there. How does this bill work?

Shaheen: Well, what it does is require insurance companies, as well as Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, to cover the full cost of the testing, and it puts in place emergency measures to make sure that those who don't have insurance have their testing costs covered. It also provides, as you pointed out, emergency paid sick leave to many workers and reimburses small businesses for providing that sick leave. And it helps with nutrition assistance to families who may be having trouble right now, who need help with food, with seniors, with school lunch programs and kids who are not in school right now and are not getting their hot lunches. So there are a number of initial things that are done as part of the bill, but we've got a lot more to do. And testing is a huge issue because we don't have the tests that we need to test everybody who needs it.

Mathieu: You issued a statement afterwards to that effect, Senator, saying much more work remains and Congress needs to continue to work hand in hand to deliver relief to families and businesses. With that in mind, what's the tone in the Senate right now? How far could we go? Is there an appetite for something in the area of a trillion dollars, what we're hearing the White House [and] the Treasury talk about?

Shaheen: I think there is because I think people appreciate that so many families are struggling. There are people who have already been laid off [and] who may have enough reserves to get through a week or so, but when we're talking about two weeks, a month, two months, three months, that presents a whole other challenge. We've got to help those people and the small businesses. Some of the big companies [are] going to take a very bad hit to their bottom line, but hopefully they can get through this. A lot of small businesses, if they have to close their doors for a period of time, they may not be able to survive. So we've got to see how we can help them, [and] how we can help the nonprofits and social service agencies as well, who are on the front lines of dealing with this epidemic.

Mathieu: The states in many cases have been leading the way here, Senator Shaheen. You were once a governor in New Hampshire, [so] you know what this is all about. Many state executives ? in our case, Charlie Baker ? are taking matters into their own hands in terms of implementing policies [and] new protocols to deal with this. Is that the way this should be working?

Shaheen: Well, ideally, there would be more guidance at the federal level. But I think absent that in the early days that states, mayors and municipalities decided they needed to act because they were seeing the potential for this pandemic to overwhelm our healthcare system, as we've seen in Italy and in other places. That's why it's so disappointing that it has taken so long to get to testing up. We still don't have tests for everybody who is being asked to get a test. That needs to change. We know that we're still short of the personal protective equipment ? the gowns, the mask, the gloves ? that our health care workers need, and that puts them at risk if they're treating someone with COVID-19. So I think the president's statement yesterday that he was thinking about invoking the War Production Act so that we can encourage the private sector to start producing the medical supplies that we need is very important. We've got to ramp that up in New Hampshire. We're looking at shortages in a week or so because we don't have enough of that personal protective equipment.

Mathieu: You issued a video address to the people of New Hampshire [and] to the people of the country two days ago, senator, asking them to acknowledge and respect the new social distancing protocols that are out there. You said this means avoiding hugs, handshakes, large gatherings of people. We're not seeing that in all instances, Senator. How do you think people are doing with this?

Shaheen: Some people are doing very well. I'm just disappointed when I see the pictures on the television news shows that show the beaches in Florida that are open and lots of students who are there for spring break who are in very close proximity, who are in swimming pools and at the beach together. That's a real concern. We've got to help everybody understand that we're all in this together. We've all got to help do what the CDC is urging us to do so that we can slow the spread of this disease, because we know that if we don't, we're gonna see our health care system overwhelmed and people will die who shouldn't die. That's the challenge. So even if you're young and you think you may not be as vulnerable as someone who's older, you may, whether you intend to or not, come in contact with somebody who's older and without knowing, spread the virus because people can be carriers without exhibiting any of the symptoms.

Mathieu: It seems like people are starting to get this, Senator. But indeed, the pictures from spring break have been a bit disturbing, and hopefully people will start getting the point here as the number of cases rises and we start hearing these stories from overseas -- from Italy, now from Iran. It seems to be sinking in.

Shaheen: I hope so. We saw yesterday at the end of the day that Italy has had almost 3,000 deaths. And the pictures of the hospitals in Italy where they are totally overwhelmed.

Mathieu: Scary.

Shaheen: It's not what we want in the United States, and we all need to work to make sure that we don't get to that point. We need to think about this as we did in World War Two. when everybody was in the fight together, trying to make sure that we did everything we could to ensure that people are protected. That's how we need to be thinking about this.

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