Governors warn Congress more federal help is needed to avoid COVID-19 resurgence

By: - June 3, 2020 12:01 am

The U.S. Capitol. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The federal government needs to assist states with a national strategy for distribution of COVID-19 tests and medical equipment or risk a second surge of the disease, Democratic governors told lawmakers Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis asked Congress for more federal help as states try to track and monitor the disease and brace for its confluence with the  flu and cold season next fall.

“I am absolutely worried about flu season, when it comes to supplies and testing and the ability to meet our needs,” Whitmer told the panel.

“We don’t want a resurgence of COVID with the flu,” Polis said.

States are beginning to ease some restrictions, but each jurisdiction is developing its own metrics for when to reopen and how to keep residents safe. Most of Virginia is expected to enter phase two this Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday.

“Because there has not been a national strategy, each of us has developed our own re-engagement strategies,” Whitmer told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Virginia Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith.

Northam, who was not among the governors who testified at the hearing, has also been critical of the Trump administration’s pandemic response, saying little was done to help states get basic testing equipment they needed. When President Donald Trump said in mid-April that states had enough tests to go ahead and re-open, Northam called it “delusional.”

“We have been fighting for testing. It’s not a — it’s not a straightforward test. We don’t even have enough swabs, believe it or not,” Northam said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on April 19.  “And we’re ramping that up. But for the national level to say that we have what we need and really to have no guidance to the state levels is just irresponsible, because we’re not there yet.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Whitmer said more federal coordination is needed to help states get all the equipment they need for testing and tracing the disease — especially relatively simple items like swabs, masks, and gloves.

“We have paid a price for the fact that these things have not been produced in the United States, and I would just submit that a national strategy to ensure that we have these test kits is the most important thing that the federal government really needs to take the reins on,“ Whitmer said. “Absent a national policy, we have created a shortage and driven up the price.”

House Democrats included requirements for a national testing strategy as part of a sweeping pandemic response bill they approved last month. Senate Republicans have called the ambitious $3 trillion bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

“Let’s be clear, the states and the governors on the front lines of this crisis are working around the clock and doing everything they can to address shortages and help their communities, but there is only so much any one governor can do in this global crisis,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that convened the hearing.

“Without clear, effective leadership from the federal government as more communities reopen this summer and as we head into the fall, we cannot repeat the chaos we saw this spring, with states scrambling for tests and competing with one another for critical supplies.”

Virginia has conducted a total of 328,889 tests, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The statewide total for COVID-19 cases on Tuesday was 46,239, an increase of 841 cases. The total case numbers have increased with more tests, but the percent of positive results has been on a decline since the middle of April.

Griffith objects to proceedings

The hearing was the first fully remote hearing in the Energy and Commerce Committee, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill adjust operations in response to new social distancing guidelines.

Griffith raised a point of order against the hearing, which he said did not comply with requirements House leadership set for remote proceedings. Griffith said the guidance from the House Rules Committee is “clumsy at best” and may not hold up in court.

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th.

“Today’s hearing or proceeding is not the problem, these witnesses are honest,” Griffith said. “The problem is if we have a witness in the future who intentionally misleads the committee on a statement of fact, i.e., perjures themselves.”

He asked Democrats to conduct business in person or draft more clear requirements for virtual hearings.

Griffith sat in the committee’s hearing room in Washington, even as the witnesses and most Democrats on the panel dialed in from their homes and offices.

The governors at the hearing recounted weeks of confusion this spring as they competed against each other and the federal government to try to obtain tests and protective equipment for medical personnel. When shipments from the federal government came, they sometimes did not arrive on time or contain what was expected.

“I think it is to be expected that we compete against other nations. What the surprise element is here is that we are competing against other states and sometimes our own federal government,” said Polis.

He said more coordination is needed going forward, so the competition among states does not drive up prices and cost to taxpayers.

“We need to make sure we have a transparent way of distributing protective equipment to states and coordinating purchases and the advantages of scale at the federal level,” Polis said.

Whitmer said help from the federal government was uneven.

“Uncertainty about supplies and the federal government’s role in directing their allocation has really undermined our ability to coordinate our testing strategy,” said Whitmer. “Testing supplies were limited and information was scarce and the federal government’s role was narrow.”

Whitmer created a global procurement office as part of her emergency operations center, but had to compete against other states and the federal government.

“When we are procuring these on our own, we necessarily start bidding against one another, and guess who tops all of our contracting ability, it’s the federal government,” she said “So when Michigan was heating up and exponential growth was happening here, it was the federal government that was where our supplies were getting delayed.”

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Virginia Mercury.