Senate Intel chair in February privately warned coronavirus was 'akin to 1918 pandemic'

Senate Intel chair in February privately warned coronavirus was 'akin to 1918 pandemic'
© Bonnie Cash

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLoeffler traded .4M in stocks as Congress responded to coronavirus pandemic Before this pandemic ends, intel agencies should prepare for a world of threats DOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report MORE (R-N.C.) in late February privately warned a group of constituents that the coronavirus outbreak was comparable to the 1918 influenza pandemic and that it would potentially upend everyday life in the U.S. 

Burr made the remarks on Feb. 27 during a luncheon in Washington, D.C., organized by the North Carolina State Society, a nonpartisan group consisting of North Carolina businesses and organizations, according to a recording obtained by NPR. Members in attendance reportedly included many who represent businesses and organizations in the state. 

The comments offered a starkly different message than the one President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE was communicating about the coronavirus at the time. Just a day prior, Trump suggested that the disease would "disappear." He also tweeted on Feb. 24 that the virus was "very much under control."

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"There's one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," Burr said. "It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."

The Republican senator went on to warn during the meeting that every company and school should be prepared for certain restrictions because of an outbreak in the U.S. He said that businesses should "be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel" due to the risk. 

"There will be, I'm sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, 'Let's close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,' " he said. 

He also suggested that the crisis would demand military intervention, according to NPR.

Many of Burr's warnings have become reality in recent weeks, with schools closing around the country and the Trump administration implementing various travel restrictions. 

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Burr has continually offered assessments on the U.S. coronavirus response, though he never publicly offered some of the warnings he communicated during the luncheon.

In a Feb. 7 Fox News op-ed, Burr said the "public health preparedness and response framework that Congress has put in place and that the Trump Administration is actively implementing today is helping to protect Americans."

He also said in a statement on March 3 that Congress must ensure first responders have the resources they need after North Carolina confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. 

“Sen. Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years," Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll told The Hill. 

"His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack. Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus," she said.

"At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC and state officials," she added. 

The coronavirus, which first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide, including more than 10,000 individuals in the U.S.

Trump, who previously downplayed the dangers of the virus, said Tuesday that he "felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” During a White House press briefing Thursday, he accused press outlets of "siding with China" and claimed that they were inaccurately covering his administration's response to the outbreak.