WASHINGTON — Congress will send President Donald Trump an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to help combat the coronavirus, as the virus continues to spread in the United States.
The Senate voted 96–1 to fund the package. The bulk of funding is designated to agencies responsible for prevention and care. The amount is more than three times the original $2.5 billion that Trump requested from Congress last week, but he is expected to sign the bill. Republican Sen. Rand Paul was lone vote against the spending package.
More than $7 billion will be dispersed among government health agencies, including $2.2 billion allocated to the CDC to contain the outbreak and $3 billion toward research and development of vaccines and other treatments. More than $1 billion will fund State Department operations abroad and humanitarian assistance.
The bill comes as the international death toll related to the infection reaches 3,286 people, 11 of which were in the US. More than 95,000 people worldwide have been infected with the coronavirus, according to a Johns Hopkins University website mapping the spread of the infection. Earlier this week, the stock market plummeted to its lowest since 2008. The FDA is closely monitoring potential shortages in critical medical products.
To mitigate the issue, Congress’s bill provides nearly $1 billion to state and local agencies for medical supplies, including masks and protective equipment. Small businesses suffering financial losses as a result of the outbreak will have access to $1 billion in loan subsidies.
On Wednesday, the House approved the package 415–2; Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado voted against the measure.
Prior to the vote, House Democrats and Republicans attended separate closed-door briefings with Vice President Mike Pence and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Trump put Pence in charge of the coronavirus response, much to the chagrin of health experts who cited the vice president’s lack of medical experience.
Members leaving the briefing said Pence and Fauci gave the same public health recommendations that health experts have circulated since the outbreak; Pence and Fauci also announced new guidance for nursing homes to minimize the spread of the virus, according to those who attended the briefing.
“On travel, Dr. Fauci said there wasn’t an official directive but 'just use common sense,'” Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York told BuzzFeed News upon exiting the briefing. “The people that are elderly, that have preexisting conditions — with respiratory or heart — they should not be domestically traveling,” she added.
Maloney, chair of the House Oversight Committee, said she invited Fauci to appear before the committee next Wednesday for a public briefing.
Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts said Pence told Democrats “that the risk for the average American that’s in good health was still small,” also adding that their concerns were more centered around the “frail elderly.”
The average age of a US senator is 62.9 years old; several of them are over the age of 80. Still, many senators said they weren’t worried about contracting the infection. Some of their House counterparts seemed rattled when they joined hundreds of their colleagues on the floor to vote Wednesday. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee wore a blue rubber glove on his right hand during a vote series, and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida sat in the House chambers wearing a gas mask.
So far, Congress is moving forward with normal in-person voting and is expected to return to the Capitol next week. When reporters asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi if the Capitol would remain open, she responded, “At this time, yes, without question,” as she walked into a briefing on the coronavirus.