Six months ago, the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed in the U.S. in a man who had returned home to Washington state from visiting family in Wuhan, China.
The infection set off a flurry of local efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, while serving as a signal that the U.S. was not protected from the pathogen.
STAT recently spoke with U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, the Washington Democrat who represents the district where that first known case occurred, about the lessons learned from it, what the role of a member of Congress is during a pandemic, and what more lawmakers need to do to help the U.S. response. (Retrospective studies have indicated the virus was potentially spreading in the U.S. earlier, but the man in Washington was the first diagnosed case.)
By design, state and local agencies typically lead the efforts during public health crises, backed up with support from the federal government. DelBene described her job then as a liaison, trying to squeeze resources and information from the federal government for responders in her district, while also pushing for a national plan to address the coronavirus pandemic.
Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity.
How did you hear about the first case back in January in your district?
I heard like everyone else through the news that there had been a positive case in Snohomish County. That started many conversations with our local public health agencies about what measures were going to be taken. This was new — we were trying to figure out what procedures needed to be taken. There was a lot of focus to contain this particular case, but it did bring up the conversations about what happens if there are more cases or if there’s any spread.
And what did you do during that time? What was your role as the congressional representative for that area?
The key role was to make sure that our public health experts had what they needed, in terms of what information they needed, to make sure the federal government would be ready to respond, to make sure there were resources available — really listening to them to get their feedback on what they needed and what we could do to be helpful.
Do you think that that case gave the U.S. a false sense of security? It was sort of framed as, this went as well as it could have. This man recognized his symptoms and sought care, the providers were ready, local officials did contact tracing and didn’t find anything. It was sort of like, in the moment, we handled this. Were you thinking this shows this can be handled or were you more thinking of it as a sign of things to come?
I don’t think any of us knew whether there would be ongoing spread, how many more people might have been impacted. But if this was one individual, clearly there were folks all around the country, with many people traveling, so I knew, and a lot of folks knew as well, that you can’t take this case and assume it was going to be the only one. But in terms of how quickly it might spread, I don’t think any of us knew.
What were you hearing from your colleagues on the Hill? Were people concerned yet?
Everyone was interested in understanding what was happening in our district, but definitely it was later on, especially when there was spread at the long-term care facility, that was when folks saw the devastating impact spread could have on our communities.
If you’re acting as a liaison between state and local agencies and the federal government, how has your ability to do that changed over the course of the pandemic? How have your interactions with the Trump administration and federal agencies changed over time, in terms of getting information or resources or in terms of responsiveness?
Early on, we had weekly calls with state officials and federal officials — representatives from FEMA and other agencies. Obviously that became more challenging as other states started seeing bigger outbreaks and resources became more scarce and the focus of the administration wasn’t just on our region but on every area of the country. It has been extremely frustrating because we are still lacking a coordinated federal response, something we’ve needed since the very early days of the pandemic.
I wanted to ask about HR 3, the drug-pricing bill passed by the House in December and that you voted for. Everyone’s looking to drug companies now to develop treatments or vaccines to get us out of the pandemic, and that industry, its rhetoric has been that that legislation would basically cripple its ability to make new therapies and vaccines. Has the pandemic shifted your view on that legislation at all?
No, I think in fact we need to make sure that everyone has affordable access to the medications that they need. If anything, the pandemic makes it even clearer that we need to make sure every person in this country has affordable quality health care and that includes prescription drugs. If we have a treatment that comes out for coronavirus, and it’s only accessible to people who have money and resources, then we are not fulfilling our public health responsibility.
In terms of what else should Congress do, I know there are a lot of economic issues that you are trying to address, but what more should lawmakers do to bolster the public health response or improve the response?
We need to make sure state and local governments have resources, and those resources go to help support our first responders and health care workers. I’ve pushed for funding for states, not only going forward, but to backfill — because we were hit so early, our state needed resources going back to February, when other states hadn’t been hit so hard yet. There continue to be challenges with testing. We have money in the Heroes Act [which the House passed in May] to provide more funding for testing and contact tracing. It’s been over two months, and we’re still waiting on the Senate to take up legislation, and they can’t even agree on what legislation should look like.