Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Sen. John Barrasso

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate appears poised to advance first Native American to lead National Park Service Sunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Wyo.) who says that it's too soon to do another spending bill for states and localities when the $650 billion already appropriated hasn't been spent. Barrasso also says that hydroxychloroquine was one of several potential drugs out of our experience with malaria, and others with HIV/AIDS and Ebola that might have been routes for pursuing a vaccine and says we need to fund studies for all vaccine candidates.

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Read excerpts from the interview below.

Clemons: I want to get a snapshot of the fact that Wyoming is one of those states that's ahead of most. I mean, you've lowered the curve in terms of the incidents of COVID-19 and you've been a proponent of opening. And I'm interested in what lessons can we take from how Wyoming is doing this now? 

Barrasso: You know, we always say in Wyoming, we've been socially distancing for the whole 130 years of statehood because there are only about five people per square mile. But people like to get together. Church is a big thing every Sunday, rodeos, fairs, activities and people are still looking forward to doing this summer. But we did socially distance. The state never really completely shut down. We just allowed for people in Wyoming to use their good common sense to try to do what we could to prevent the disease in this and the spread of the disease. And early on the hot spot was Jackson Hole, Wyo., because of travelers coming from other places. They really did shut down quite a bit there. But the surprise to all of us was a nursing home in Lander, Wyo., a fairly small community, which was the first to be hardest hit. That let people realized this can happen anywhere, doesn't necessarily happen in the big cities. People saw on television what was happening in New York, but what we saw in Lander, Wyo., if Lander, Wyo., can be hit, anybody can. Let's take this seriously, and I think it mattered in terms of being able to keep our numbers way down. 

 

Clemons: Is there a partisan divide regarding opening in Wyoming? Or is there a consensus that opening and the way it's happening right now is moving in the right direction? 

Barrasso: Well, we think we're moving in the right direction. We want to do it smartly. We want to do it safely. That's what the governor, and that's what all the folks in the state have continued to say. There have been some level of protests of people saying, “Hey, this has affected my life and my livelihood. I don't want to give up my liberties as well," because everybody in America has been impacted with coronavirus one way or the other, for some people the health standpoint has been dramatically worse than the economic standpoint. But in Wyoming, it's the economic side of it that hit us the hardest. We went flat line in terms of energy, in terms of agriculture, tourism. You know 4 million people a year come to Yellowstone National Park, it’s one of the great sites of the world. But we're not gonna have that this summer for sure. Lots of those are always international travelers. So, we’re impacted economically more than from the disease standpoint. So people want to get the economy moving, going again. And people, I think, have been very responsible in the way we've done it in Wyoming. Early on, I was talking regularly to our hospital administrator at the Wyoming Medical Center, where I was the chief of staff. We have 18 respirators. Talked to the head of pulmonary disease on Friday, and they have a total of two people on respirators. So because of the things that we've done, they were worried there wouldn't be enough. And now we're finding that we have more than enough, and we've never used that many in the entire time I was practicing medicine and as the chief of staff of the hospital. 

 

Clemons: Are you seeing some reluctance out there to get tested?

Barrasso: The idea was you had to be symptomatic to get the tests. The doctors who were sending patients for tests were ones that were expected to be positive tests. But again, you're right, you talk about the number of tests we’re doing now with 300 a day, and yet only five or six are positive. So, the percentage of those even of suspected people are still a small, small percentage of those testing positive. The general public hasn't been encouraged to get tested this time. We were holding tests back for front-line health care workers, as well as patients who are showing the symptoms. You know, do you have a fever? And they would take your temperature before they give you the test. Do you have any respiratory symptoms? All of those issues that we know are the potential signs of coronavirus. But today there's a national story on so many different ways coronavirus may present in terms of the symptoms. Now we're saying, maybe you don't have to have a fever. There are respiratory signs, yes, gastrointestinal issues related to it, circulatory components, there is so much. And I'm a doctor. I've been studying this. I went to every briefing starting back in January. During the impeachment, Steve, we were having bipartisan Senate briefings in the morning before we’d go to impeachment in the afternoon. We have a number of us in the Senate who've been following this very closely, reading everything we can, studying all we can about this topic, and there is still a great deal we do not know. 

 

Clemons: You’re a doctor, so you have a respect for science. But do you ever worry that as we approach drug development, vaccine development, the drama about hydroxychloroquine and what not, that we're not giving science the right time to play out because of the urgency of this?

Barrasso: If you talk to Dr. Fauci and his long history with his scientific background, you know, he wants double blind studies and give people the placebos. There is an urgency and lives matter and time matters, which is why we're saying if the potential to have a vaccine that may work. If they're five different vaccines, make all of them, realizing that only one is going to be the best. That's the one you're going to use. So there's gonna be some waste in that process. The same with medicines. I mean, there was an article two months ago about different things that might work. I've read this, actually in The Economist, the British magazine, and hydroxychloroquine was one of those that was listed as was medicine for AIDS, as was medicine for hepatitis, as well as medicine for SARS and for different components of Ebola. So there were thoughts that let's try a lot of things to see what becomes most likely. And now we have one product that seems not to be a home run, not to be the silver bullet, but to at least be a good step in the treatment. 

 

Clemons: That is remdesivir.

Barrasso: Yes, remdesivir. With the vaccine, you know, the routine way scientifically of trying a vaccine out as you come up with something that's safe, you give it to a lot of people and let them go back to their normal lives and see how many people get the disease, whatever it is. Well, now they're saying, let's not try to do that with coronavirus. Let's do challenge tests where you get a number of volunteers, pay them, give them the vaccine, once you find one that you believe is safe, and then expose them directly to coronavirus. Well, that's a riskier proposition, but you're going to know pretty soon if everybody that's had this vaccine, if none of them get the coronavirus after they've been exposed. Or what if all of them get it? That means that vaccine hasn't worked. So, you're taking risks with human lives to get effective vaccines or treatments sooner. 

 

Clemons: You were part of the team that helped sculpt the CARE package, a bipartisan piece of legislation, providing trillions of dollars to the economy. What did you folks get wrong, when you look back at that now?

Barrasso: Well, you know, this was done in a bipartisan way, past the Senate, 96 to nothing there, things that we got right, which could have done even better. And I think about these small-business loans that have gone out, the paycheck protection, that has gone out around the country. In Wyoming, we've had over a $1 billion and over 11,000 of these loan, stories every day. People that said this made a big difference for them. But you hear stories about it with the Los Angeles Lakers that got one of these loans or businesses that probably shouldn't have. And in an effort to get the money out to people immediately, there were ways it could have been done better. And some of the regulations that the SBA wrote, weren't part of the original law itself. But the way it's being implemented, I don't think was in the intention, in what 75 percent of the money had to be used for salaries. Well, every business doesn't fit that model. But you want to keep people on the payroll, and that's the goal of it and we've accomplished that significantly. Would have been better to have had a little more time. If you knew that this was going to be done this way, you would have changed it a bit. 

 

Clemons: Are you going to support another stimulus package? Do you think there's more out there that needs to be done? Or do you think you need to take a break?

Barrasso: Well, I think we don't know yet what needs to be done, additionally. We want to see where we are, we spent up to $3 trillion, this is all borrowed money. You want to make sure it's being used wisely. You know, as a doctor and as a state with lots of small hospitals, which operate on very thin margins, you know, a lot of my focus has been on rural hospitals. In most communities, that rural hospital is not just the medical mecca for the community, it's also the economic center. If a hospital closes, and about 200 hospitals have closed in the United States over the last seven or eight years, they're all small hospitals. And if that hospital closes in a rural community, it's harder for that community to attract teachers, nurses, doctors, small businesses. It's a really bad situation for that community. So what we've been doing is working with the administration and bipartisan ways to help hospitals, those that have huge needs, like those in New York where they've been treating lots of patients, and those in rural communities where they've been essentially shut down to preserve the personal protective equipment, haven't done any elective procedures, and somebody said, “Well, why do you need elective procedures?” Well, mammograms are an elective procedure. My wife is a breast cancer survivor, so it's not just somebody that wants to get a total hip replacement. There are a lot of routine medical things, colonoscopies, all of those things have been canceled, which are preventative and are necessary for patients. So what we've been doing in, as you talked about, the CARES Act, we've done another piece of legislation. Another what, $650 billion recently with additional money onto the paycheck protection, but also another $75 billion for hospitals. None of that money has been sent out yet, so we don't know how much is necessary out there. The money to states — $150 billion has been sent to states. Very little of that has been actually spent, so far. I think states should have more flexibility with how they use that $150 billion that they have. But I don't know that they'll need additional amounts, although the Speaker of the House is asking for it right now.

 

Clemons: When you look at the footprint of COVID-19 in the United States right now, it's staggeringly large. Do we all have to kind of go back and get an accounting somehow of why this was able to spread in the United States to the incredible degree it has? What did we get wrong from your perspective?

Barrasso: Well, number one is there's going to be plenty of time to look around and point around, and I would expect that the entire presidential campaign of 2020, Steve, is going to involve some finger pointing. I don't think that solves the problem today. We need a vaccine. We need treatment. We need more testing. We have about 2 million tests a week right now. Dr. Fauci says we need 3 million. There's a hearing on the Hill this week, Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE's HELP committee, and they'll have the panel of experts. Testing will be a big part of that discussion. When can more and more people get tested? What do we need to have in place so schools can open again in the fall? So, yeah, there's going to be a number of things. You know, The Washington Post did a story about the Center for Disease Control and the original round of tests which the Center for Disease Control violated their own procedures, which resulted I believe, in about a five week delay of advanced testing ... but we're going to be capable of doing 2 million tests a week, which moves it from just the symptomatic people that you and I were talking about earlier, to much more broad testing in the society and more frequent. Ultimately, we need to get to the point where you can test for the immunoglobulin to see not just if you have the coronavirus right now that you are a carrier, but also are you in some way immune. They talk about an immunity passport for some people that have the immunoglobulins built up. And how long is that going to last for? If you've had the measles, you know, you're protected for the rest of your life. We know you have the flu, you might get it again next year. So, there are different things that we need to learn. And we're still learning a lot about a disease that has caught the world by surprise and has impacted everyone in one way or the other.