Lawmakers fret over China’s virus info as US local case emerges

The newest case is the husband of an Illinois woman who was confirmed as sick last week

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., talks with an aide during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health markup in July 2019. Lawmakers on the subcommittee were briefed Thursday on the spread of coronavirus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House lawmakers briefed by the Trump administration Thursday expressed confidence in the United States government’s approach to the spread of coronavirus, although not necessarily China’s response, as officials confirmed the first person infected in the U.S. who had not traveled to China.

The morning briefing for Energy and Commerce Committee members came hours before the World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international public health emergency. Committee members in the briefing expressed concerns that China may not be providing enough information about the outbreak and worried that a severe flu season could strain the U.S. response if coronavirus spreads here. Lawmakers expressed a willingness to provide more resources if needed.

“The federal agencies are doing a good job with planning in this situation. My concern is with China, because Beijing lacks transparency, so that would be my concern,” said Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.

The global spread of the illness is concentrated in China, where the country’s National Health Commission reported over 7,700 cases and 170 deaths as of Thursday. Until Thursday, there were five known infected people in the U.S., all of whom had traveled to China.

The newest case is the husband of an Illinois woman who was confirmed as sick last week. She had been traveling in Wuhan, China, the outbreak’s epicenter, and became ill after returning to the U.S. on Jan. 13. The couple are both in their 60s, and local health officials on Thursday described the woman as doing quite well while the man was described as stable.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Officials on Thursday emphasized that the disease is not spreading in the general U.S. population, and that the transmission in this case was between two individuals who were in close contact for an extended period. The CDC and local health departments are trying to trace the contacts of the couple and other sick individuals.

While the CDC expects more cases to appear in the U.S., officials maintain that the risk to the general population is still low, but urged those who have recently traveled to China and their close contacts to be vigilant.

“We want to lean forward and be aggressive, but we want our action to be evidence-based and appropriate for the current circumstance,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Thursday. She said the CDC didn’t believe that the general public needed to adopt protective measures like face masks.

About 300 contacts of the confirmed cases are being monitored for symptoms, said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who was in the briefing for the Energy and Commerce Committee. The discussion occurred before the new case was announced.

“We need to be concerned about this, we need to watch it, but it is not a crisis in the U.S. at this time,” said DeGette, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The briefers included CDC Director Robert Redfield and National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci. DeGette and other Democrats praised federal health officials.

“I’m encouraged that they were able to identify these five cases quickly and they know how to deal with them,” said DeGette.

On Wednesday evening, the White House released a roster of officials leading the response. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is overseeing a task force that includes Redfield, Fauci, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and others.

Some lawmakers have called on President Donald Trump to appoint a coronavirus “czar,” but Rep. Donna E. Shalala, D-Fla., who served as HHS secretary in the Clinton administration, said she thought the CDC and other agencies were doing a good job with coordination as is, calling them “first-rate people.”

Lawmakers’ concerns Pallone was one of several lawmakers expressing concern about whether the Chinese government was being transparent as it deals with the rapidly growing outbreak.

“You know, It’s China, and they aren’t really forthcoming with information,” said Texas Republican Michael C. Burgess, the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee ranking member.

Burgess said the U.S. government should be more aggressive in promoting its travel warnings about China. He noted it is not mentioned on the State Department’s home page or primary travel advisory page.

The State Department and CDC issued warnings on Monday that Americans should reconsider travel to China and should explicitly avoid travel to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak.

Other lawmakers used reports of the first case transmitted in the U.S. to bolster arguments for travel restrictions with China.

China “is not being fully transparent about the origins and scale of the crisis,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., said in a Twitter message Thursday. If the U.S. doesn’t respond more aggressively, he wrote, “we will be putting US citizens at risk. Time for a targeted travel ban.”

Officials told lawmakers that they didn’t need more resources for their response to the virus, but members leaving the briefing were ready to support a supplemental funding bill if needed.

“It probably wouldn’t be a hard ask if they feel like they need that,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill.

Shalala emphasized that the most important response Americans could take now was getting a flu shot — not because the shot would protect against coronavirus itself, she said, but “it will help the greater good in terms of limiting the number of people that end up in emergency rooms,” in case more capacity is needed for a coronavirus outbreak.

“This year’s seasonal flu is much, much more serious right now than this coronavirus,” DeGette said. “But we have to be very careful obviously in monitoring this and making sure it doesn’t spread any further.”

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