DeGette coronavirus

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver talks to Trump administration about the deadly coronavirus on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette repeatedly returned to the need to expand testing for COVID-19 coronavirus during a telephone town hall meeting with constituents on Monday evening.

“We’re beyond what they call 'contact tracing.' That would be if you tested positive, they would go around and try to see everybody you talk to,” DeGette explained. She said the virus has spread too rapidly for that to be feasible. “If you can do accurate testing and then you could get the results, what that helps you to see is number one, where the virus is spreading, and to be able to enact whatever containment policies you need.”

During the hour-long call DeGette fielded questions from Denver-area residents concerned about the safety net for homeless families, financial relief for freelancers and whether the nation should be headed toward lockdowns on a massive scale of the kind that San Francisco’s mayor will implement on Tuesday.

“I don’t think we can definitively say that if this really explodes, that we’re not going to have some kind of a national shutdown. But we still do have to try to keep businesses operating,” she said. DeGette approved of the orders from Gov. Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to close dine-in service for restaurants and bars to minimize transmission risk of the virus in large groups of people. She believes leaders will order quarantines “as needed” if there appear to be hot spots for transmission.

One caller asked the congresswoman about relief for the approximately 57 million freelancers in the country. Another caller described getting a Small Business Administration loan last year, saying he was not yet making a profit on his business and had no rainy day fund to weather a prolonged shutdown.

DeGette described the two bills passed so far in the U.S. House of Representatives: an $8.3 billion investment into research and preparedness that was more than four times the Trump Administration’s request, plus a measure passed over the weekend to provide additional emergency funding for food assistance programs and require paid sick leave. The Senate has not yet considered the second bill. She anticipated there will be a third measure soon to provide financial aid to small businesses and lower income earners.

“There’s a lot of other conversations going on, at least in the House, about protecting people’s mortgage payments, their student loan payments,” she said. DeGette added that she would co-sponsor a proposal to give $1,000 to adults earning up to $100,000 through the Earned Income Tax Credit. Earlier on Monday, U.S. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also proposed a $1,000 transfer to every adult, something that former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang championed as a universal basic income. 

As for the man with the small business loan, DeGette said this was the first she had heard of the problem, but would discuss it with the chair of the tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means.

DeGette, who herself was working from home during the call to avoid group contact, was disappointed about the Trump Administration's response to the coronavirus. The U.S. has been plagued with low testing rates, initial tests that were defective and original screening criteria that were restrictive.

“I don’t think we should make partisan attacks, but I’m going to be honest: what I’ve seen from this administration with the testing; they’re always a couple of weeks behind the curve,” she said. She called on the administration to open up its massive stockpile of medical equipment and expressed her dismay at receiving an unsatisfactory answer about the number of ventilators available from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's own analysis puts the number of ventilators needed at nearly 16,000 for Texas alone.

One caller, a primary care provider, said she understands there is a “dire need” for medical protective equipment, adding that she heard about providers "that are having to bleach the masks after they are using them.” DeGette also heard from the leader of a nonprofit who worried about a lack of guidance for her sector, given that such organizations do not neatly align with businesses or public entities.

The congresswoman empathized with their situations. She ticked off the number of crises, from the 9/11 terror attacks to the SARS and MERS respiratory illnesses, that she has experienced as a 12-term representative, and “this is far and away the worst crisis that I have seen.”

DeGette added that members of Congress, like the public, only received tests if they showed symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and coughing. She had not been tested. Roughly one dozen members of Congress have isolated themselves after coming into contact with people who potentially carried the virus. Several such cases occurred after late February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which DeGette noted that she did not attend.

A constituent in Denver asked DeGette whether she planned to help homeless individuals and families receive tests and shelter in which to quarantine themselves. She also inquired about DeGette’s stance on an eviction moratorium, so as not to “keep making the problem worse.”

Agreeing “100%” with the caller, DeGette said she is meeting with mayors in her congressional district, believing that her job is to help them. “That’s one question I'm going to ask them: what do they need from me,” DeGette added. She did not address the question about a moratorium on evictions.

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