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Coronavirus March 23 Update: Struggling for a Compromise on the Hill, Competing for Aid in the States, and Disaster Declarations

Coronavirus March 23 Update: Struggling for a Compromise on the Hill, Competing for Aid in the States, and Disaster Declarations

Monday, March 23, 2020

Struggling for a compromise 

Negotiations on an economic stimulus measure that had hit about $1.8 trillion by Sunday -- and probably climbing -- were set to continue Monday morning, top Senate and White officials said late Sunday night. 

"I think we're very close. The teams are going to work through the night. We're going to regroup the principals in the morning," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the administration's point man on stimulus talks. "We're going to work very hard to get this done tomorrow." 

White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland said administration negotiators would be back up at the Capitol by 9 a.m. to continue talks. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., late Sunday said he'd met with Ueland and Mnuchin six times on Sunday. He said while there are "some serious problems" with the package Senate Republicans circulated late Saturday, he thought a deal could be near. 

"We're getting closer and closer and I'm very hopeful ... that we could get a bill in the morning," Schumer said. 

The ongoing impasse raises the odds of steep stock market losses Monday morning, just what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House had tried to avoid. 

"Our nation cannot afford the game of chicken," McConnell said on the floor late Sunday night, after an intensive day of negotiations on how best to limit the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. "This... is a national emergency, not a partisan opportunity." 

In a key procedural test vote Sunday evening, supporters mustered only 47 votes of the 60 required to take up the relief package. Plans by Senate GOP leaders for a speedy vote on passage Monday appeared in greater jeopardy. McConnell switched his vote to oppose the measure when it was clear it would be blocked so he could hold another procedural vote at a later time. 

McConnell's effort to get 60 votes was hampered partly because of the pandemic itself: Five GOP members of the Senate were not able to come to the floor because they were self-quarantining after possible exposure to people who'd contracted COVID-19, including Kentucky's Rand Paul, who tested positive. 

In another potential setback for speedy action, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House would offer its own legislative package even as the Senate works to complete its bill. 

"We're so far apart," Pelosi said after leaving a meeting of top congressional leaders around mid-day. "We'll be introducing our own bill and hopefully it will be compatible with what they discussed on the Senate side." 

It wasn't clear by late Sunday whether Pelosi still planned to introduce an alternative bill. 

The bottom line: Tensions have risen but a deal could still come together as early as Monday. 

States competing for aid 

While it has not yet triggered a war between the states, the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to set up a competition among them as they scramble for limited federal resources. 

As it becomes clearer the country doesn't have the equipment it needs to test for or treat COVID-19, state and local officials are urging Congress and the administration to beef up funding and medical supplies. 

The Strategic National Stockpile, a program managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, allots to states and four large metropolitan areas -- New York, Los Angeles County, Chicago and the District of Columbia -- supplies based on population figures from the 2010 Census. 

But states seeking equipment like respirator masks, gowns and gloves for health care workers who treat potential COVID-19 cases are already reaching their full allotment, exposing a difficult aspect of the pandemic. 

"That's what the challenge is going to be," said Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Public Policy and former assistant secretary for Homeland Security in the Obama administration. "How do you have a united approach with 50 states vying for limited resources?" 

The first $8.3 billion federal relief package (PL 116-123) included $950 million for state and local health agencies. But with Seattle's King County spending $100 million, Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties, said that should be considered a "down payment" as continued funding would be needed to help local health officials treat the crisis for months. 

Governors and local officials are hoping Congress would use the third COVID-19 response package now under negotiation to make direct payments to cover expenses and to increase production of personal protective equipment. But how much aid should be given to states was a key sticking point in the talks. 

Disaster Declarations

Trump said Sunday that he would mobilize the National Guard for New York, California and Washington, the three states hit hardest by the virus. The deployment comes as states continue to struggle to find medical equipment and personal protective equipment for health care providers treating patients. States are competing against each other and the federal government for supplies, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said. 

"We're competing against each other. We're competing against other countries. You know, it's a wild west, I would say, out there," he said on CNN's "State of the Union," adding that states are paying higher rates than usual for supplies. 

While Trump invoked the Defense Production Act last week, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor said on "State of the Union" Sunday that he has not instructed any companies to begin manufacturing equipment and that companies have been volunteering to make masks and other goods.

Self-swab coronavirus tests face regulatory and logistic issues 

Companies are hoping to sell self-administered COVID-19 tests to capitalize on the intense diagnostic demand, but the Food and Drug Administration is poised to crack down on companies marketing the tests, which already were facing questions about accuracy, logistics and costs. 

A handful of companies say they are already offering, or plan to launch, kits that allow people to use nasal swabs on themselves and then ship the sample to labs to process the tests. 

President Donald Trump last week said the FDA would soon advance policies to promote self-administered tests, but the agency has yet to issue any specific guidance. 

Then in a statement on Friday night, the FDA sternly declared that it had authorized no such tests and described any effort to sell them as "fraudulent." 

"At this time, the FDA has not authorized any test that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home for COVID-19," Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn and Judith A. McMeekin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said in a statement. 

The statement noted that the FDA hoped to work with developers to authorize this kind of testing but until then, they would issue warning letters and injunctions, or even seize tests, from companies not in compliance. 

"The FDA will take appropriate action to protect consumers from bad actors who take advantage of a crisis to deceive the public by marketing tests that pose risks to patient health," said Hahn and McMeekin. 

Before Friday, some companies sending out self-swab kits said they didn't believe they would conflict with any existing rules, especially since the FDA was giving a green light to most private developers to deploy tests before any review. 

The agency recently eased oversight over test development in a variety of ways to make tests more widely available. That decision could increase the risk of inaccurate tests, health care watchdogs say, and the self-administered tests could increase that likelihood. 

Yet even those who typically push for strong FDA oversight acknowledge the agency had to take a calculated risk in order to increase testing availability, which so far has been one of the biggest holes in the country’s coronavirus response. 

“We’re behind the curve here and we need to do more testing,” said Michael Carome, director of the health research group at Public Citizen. He said there is a risk that looser FDA oversight, or problems with the logistics of self-administered tests, could result in more false positive or false negative results, which are both problematic. 

“Those are the dangers of tests that might not be validated,” he said. But, he added, “at this point because we’re flying so blindly, there is a need to deploy more tests than we currently have.” 

Andrew Siddons has the rest of the story on rollcall.com