Congress members slam Trump administration as coronavirus fears spread on Capitol Hill
Illustration by Ben Orner of Capitol News Illinois
Illinois lawmakers criticize federal response; U.S. Capitol offices take precautions
By BEN ORNER
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — Members of Congress from Illinois vented their frustrations Thursday with the Trump administration’s response to the growing outbreak of COVID-19, as fears of the disease lurk throughout Capitol Hill.
Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Jesús “Chuy” García slammed actions by the president and federal health officials, while Republican Rep. John Shimkus criticized the president’s communication about the virus but said he still has confidence in his leadership.
“The administration has simply dropped the ball on addressing this in any kind of a constructive way,” said Schakowsky, of Evanston.
Both she and García said a morning briefing with the heads of federal health and defense agencies left them more confused.
“The first thing we're told is that there are over a million tests. And then how many people have actually been tested? We find out it's just over 10,000,” Schakowsky said.
Testing has been slow to develop after federal officials passed on a test from the World Health Organization more than a month ago in favor of designing U.S.-specific test kits that have seen some flaws. Meanwhile, countries like South Korea and Italy have tested hundreds of thousands of people with the WHO tests.
“You've had all this time to figure out a system to systematically address getting people tested,” Schakowsky said. “I wish I could tell you that we got a firm timeline.”
“You could get a sense of how officials are feeling muzzled at the briefing this morning,” said García, of Chicago. He recalled seeing expressions of “anxiety and disappointment” on the faces of members from both sides of the aisle.
Both Illinois Democrats said they are frustrated with how President Donald Trump has communicated to the public about the virus. Schakowsky said the president has been “cavalier,” while García said he has “misinformed the public.”
“The president was dismissive of it. He downplayed its seriousness. He wanted to compare it to a flu, that it might arrive in passing but that he didn’t expect much of it,” García said.
“I think some very valuable time was lost, and I think his Cabinet and his key officials in the public health sector were impeded by that attitude from taking more aggressive measures,” he added.
Shimkus, a Republican from Collinsville, had criticism of Trump’s communication style.
“He has an ability to say things that eventually get resolved. But when he initially says it, you wonder how or why,” he said.
Shimkus, though, is confident in the president’s actions, including that he declared a public health emergency in January and has issued travel bans to other affected countries.
“When you're in a crisis, I think it's bad form to finger-point and blame,” he said. “I think that this is a time for people to work together and try to keep our citizens safe.”
A staffer of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. That has others on Capitol Hill taking precautions, especially with D.C. under a state of emergency with 10 virus diagnoses.
“I think a lot of us are worried, not because we’re here, but just like with the number of people that come in every day,” said Osaremen Okolo, Schakowsky’s senior health policy advisor.
Okolo said she walked to work on Thursday instead of taking the D.C. subway.
“In the morning, the Red Line is packed body-to-body,” she said. “You cannot socially isolate and I’m afraid to hold onto things because you don’t know if they clean them.”
“There is a real, palpable concern,” García said. “Most offices are going remote now, as is ours.”
The Capitol will also close to the public after Friday.
“I would say it’s a somber time,” said Shimkus, who compared it to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Schakowsky said she was screened today by the Capitol’s attending physician for cold symptoms. The physician could not test for COVID-19 because there are no tests available at the Capitol.
“My staff is concerned” about the lack of tests, she said.
Shimkus says basic precautions like washing his hands and avoiding large crowds have helped him stay calm.
“As more people get more information, that fear should subside,” he said. “I think it has for me.”
Democrats unveiled a multi-billion-dollar coronavirus economic relief bill on Thursday. House Resolution 6201, dubbed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” includes free COVID-19 testing, emergency paid sick leave and an expansion of food security programs.
“We're talking about saving lives. We're talking about preventing the spread of the disease. We're talking about ensuring that local frontline workers have what they need,” García said.
House Democrats have been negotiating with Republicans, but García said he is “not very optimistic.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, signaled Thursday evening she plans to call the bill to a vote before the end of the day.
“It's trying to find that legislative fix that is not reaching too far, doing too many things that are objectionable,” Shimkus said, “and finding that common ground of things that we can agree upon that we think will be helpful.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Thursday his chamber will be in session next week instead of taking a planned recess. As of Thursday evening, the House schedule still shows that chamber in recess next week.
Schakowsky said her staff is prepared to work from home.
President Trump signed an $8.3 billion spending bill last week to boost the country’s public health response, including state and local assistance and funding for treatments and vaccines.