As the U.S. House of Representatives signed off on another COVID-19-related rescue bill on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner felt confident about the “Manhattan Project” of testing that will follow from the measure's $25 billion investment into coronavirus diagnosis.
“I think there was a lot of learning that we had to do,” Gardner told Colorado Politics. “We’ll continue to make sure that this Manhattan Project funding that we put into testing achieves what we need — and that is a ubiquitous, low-cost, rapid test that’s available everywhere in first aid kits and 7-Elevens.”
His reference was to the World War II-era project that produced a functional atomic bomb.
Gardner, who chairs the East Asia subcommittee, announced earlier this week that he had used his connections with the South Korean government to secure 100,000 testing kits for Colorado. South Korea, with a population one-sixth that of the United States, has dropped below 10 new cases of the coronavirus per day, with a death total below 300. The United States, by contrast, had more than 46,000 deaths as of Wednesday.
Gardner said that in part, U.S. laws played a role in the different trajectories of the two countries. After the MERS outbreak in 2015, South Korea amended its privacy laws, and now residents receive cell phone alerts announcing the ages, locations and whereabouts of those who test positive as a result of detailed contact tracing.
“We had to have a different approach based on different laws and different systems,” Gardner said. He said that he has obtained tests and ventilators for Colorado by leveraging his relationships, not only with South Korea but also with President Donald Trump. Trump credited a shipment of 100 ventilators to a request from Gardner, even though Gov. Jared Polis had complained of 500 ventilators being redirected from the state to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Gardner earlier in April called for an investigation of inoperative ventilators in the federal government’s possession after a New York Times investigation found that a maintenance contract on the devices lapsed between summer 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when demand for the lifesaving devices escalated. He endorsed the idea of investigating the federal government’s reaction to the pandemic more broadly.
“There will absolutely be after-reports of how to make sure that we’re improving on our response and that’s absolutely appropriate,” he added.
Gardner did not respond directly to a question of whether shipments of emergency supplies would ever be fully based on need rather than on the personal connections of lawmakers, but added that he was “happy to help” introduce Colorado hospitals to manufacturers.
His office has taken a similar caseworker's approach to the economic stimulus included in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, and is dedicating staff to assist Coloradans in obtaining their $1,200 deposits from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
While the Trump Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has included confusing messages and deferrals of responsibility to governors, Gardner declined to assign blame to the White House, saying “I'm not into finger pointing.”
However, he quickly criticized congressional Democrats for holding up the most recent relief bill that added $250 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program designed to preserve small businesses’ payrolls.
“Why did Nancy Pelosi insist that you had to hold the employees across the country hostage to something else?” he asked. “I’m glad we got funding for the hospitals. I’m glad we got funding for testing. But 12 days ago we needed funding to keep people at work. I think we should have kept the jobs and not the politics.”
Democrats had tried to include funding for hospitals, testing, and state and local governments in the package. Only the latter did not end up in the bill.
The initial round of paycheck protection loans quickly ran out, although some money went to corporate chains that do not fit under the common perception of small business. Shake Shack, with roughly 6,000 employees, returned $10 million that it said it did not need. Gardner said he was confident that audits and congressional oversight would occur, and linked the delay in additional funding with the rise in unemployment.
“Those people that lost their job in the 12 days that the Paycheck Protection Program went unfunded, they may not be able to pay the rent because of the delay in funding,” he said. “And that’s a shame because had the funding been put in immediately, they could have kept their jobs. Millions of people could have kept their jobs.”
He supported a phased reopening of the Colorado economy, noting that the recovery would hinge on people’s confidence in their safety. Gardner did not immediately endorse further relief measures for individuals, such as a rent freeze or additional money transfers.
“I’m sure there are people talking about that,” he said. “We’ve been urging everyone to work with the banks and landlords and owners to make sure that they're making as much flexibility in their business as they can to get through this.”