Good afternoon and welcome. I’m Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy and I represent Seminole County and part of Orange County in the U.S. House of Representatives.
I’m proud to host this event on the respiratory illness known as coronavirus or COVID-19.
I want to thank our experts, the press who are covering this event, and those of you who are watching the live stream at home or at work.
My plan is to give some brief opening remarks to frame our discussion. Each expert will then speak for about two to three minutes. Finally, I’ll ask the experts some questions, so they can explain or expand upon certain points.
My goal in convening this roundtable is to provide our central Florida community with accurate information about coronavirus, helping them separate fact from fiction. My hope is that people will be vigilant—not apathetic, but not alarmist either.
This illness is having a negative economic impact, leading to reduced travel, tourism and trade, which is particularly damaging to Florida. This aspect of the topic should be the subject of further conversation.
Today, however, we will focus on the public health impact. While commerce matters, nothing matters more than the safety and well-being of our community.
There’s a lot we know about the coronavirus, but there’s also a lot we’re still learning.
Briefly, the coronavirus outbreak began in the city of Wuhan, in central China, in December of 2019. There are over 51,000 confirmed cases throughout China, though some believe that number may be considerably higher.
There are nearly 700 confirmed cases in 25 countries other than China.
The death toll from the virus is approaching 1,700, with nearly all of those deaths occurring in China.
In the United States, according to the CDC, there have been 15 confirmed cases in a total of 7 states—Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
In addition, 14 U.S. citizens who were passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and according to news reports, they are now at military bases in the United States. If you include these individuals, this brings the total number of cases in the U.S. to 29.
Most U.S. states and territories have residents who have displayed possible symptoms and are being tested for the illness. Nobody in the U.S. has died from coronavirus.
The federal government has declared that coronavirus presents a public health emergency and imposed a number of—quite forward-leaning—travel restrictions designed to slow the entry of this virus into the United States.
To date, there has not been a confirmed case here in Florida. According to reports, at least one individual in Broward County was tested for coronavirus, and the test evidently came back negative. It is not clear if there are other Florida residents—and, if so, how many—that have tests pending with the CDC.
I should mention that I invited the Florida Department of Health to attend this roundtable, and they declined. If they were here, I would urge them to be as frank and forthcoming with the public as possible about pending cases, even if such candor is not strictly required under Florida law.
Understandably, the public is anxious about coronavirus and eager for information about the illness. When government officials do not provide regular and reliable updates, even if they have the best of intentions, the resulting knowledge gap can too often be filled by rumors, misinformation, and unjustified fear.
My view is that knowledge is power.
My view is also that preparedness is power. It’s better to overprepare and have it turn out to be unnecessary than to underprepare and have it come back to haunt you.
As my own professional experience has taught me, this is especially true in the case of a pandemic, which is a fancy word for the global spread of a new illness.
Let me explain. From 2004 to 2008, under President George W. Bush, I worked at the Department of Defense. In 2005, when I was covering the Southeast Asia portfolio, I helped lead the U.S. government’s response to the threat posed by H5N1, known as the avian flu virus.
At the time, avian flu had killed scores of people in Asia. As a government, we were worried about the virus spreading to other parts of the world and especially to the United States. We were concerned about both the national security implications and the public health implications.
The first step was to ensure that each federal agency knew its proper role and that we were coordinating seamlessly with each other. So I convened a meeting at the CIA where we conducted something called a table-top exercise. We planned the steps we would take to minimize the chance that avian flu would spread to America. We then imagined different scenarios in which the virus reached our shores, and how we would respond under each scenario.
I have to tell you. In my years at DOD, I did a lot of eye-opening stuff, but this unclassified table-top exercise was perhaps the most sobering. The prospect of a global health pandemic is deadly serious—and it’s downright scary.
But I can’t emphasize enough how valuable this effort was. We pinpointed gaps in our planning and plugged those gaps. We identified critical tasks that every agency assumed another agency was handling, but that in fact nobody was handling. We asked all the right questions about who had what legal authorities to ensure everything we did was within bounds.
Taken together, this particular effort and other lines of efforts helped ensure the Bush administration had a solid strategy in place to deal with avian flu. As part of this strategy, we asked Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support other nations, state and local governments, and hospitals and clinicians, as well as to accelerate the development of treatments and vaccines.
My understanding and expectation is that the current administration has a whole-of-government strategy in place to prevent and treat coronavirus, one that includes strong support for state and local government and for health care providers.
My hope is that there is never a confirmed case in Florida, but—as I said—we must overprepare, not underprepare, for that possibility.