Good evening, and thank you to all the health care workers who have joined us tonight. I’m Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy and I represent Seminole County and part of Orange County in the U.S. House of Representatives.
As you know, I’m hosting this call with you to discuss coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. As of this morning, nearly fourteen-hundred Florida residents have tested positive, and there have been 20 deaths.
There are 50 confirmed cases in Orange County and 23 cases in Seminole County. As more testing becomes available, the number of cases in central Florida will rise. There are hospitals and clinics in our region that are already being stretched thin, and they could see a surge of new patients in the coming days and weeks.
Of course, because coronavirus is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from person to person, health care workers like you must take extraordinary precautions to avoid acquiring the illness from the patients you are treating. That requires the right equipment and the right protocols.
If you become infected, not only is your health at risk, but you cannot perform your life’s work, which is patient care. So we need to keep you healthy and in the fight.
I want to pause for a moment to offer you my deepest, most heartfelt thanks for the incredibly important and brave work you are doing, under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
I know I speak for millions of Americans when I say that we could not be more grateful for, or admiring of, the work you are doing to combat coronavirus.
It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a nurse, an administrator, or another type of health care professional. It doesn’t matter if you work at a hospital, a community health center, a physician practice, a nursing home, a school, or in some other health care setting. You are all soldiers on the frontlines of this battle we are waging against an unseen enemy.
At the same time, as an elected official, I know that I owe you more than my gratitude and admiration. I owe you my best efforts—my absolute best efforts—to ensure you have the resources, the equipment, and the supplies necessary to do your job both effectively and safely. You are dedicated professionals, but you are also human beings with your own families—and we need to safeguard your physical and psychological health.
As you may have heard, I’m hosting this call from self-quarantine here in central Florida, because I was in close proximity to a colleague of mine, Congressman Ben McAdams from Utah, who later tested positive for coronavirus.
Congressman McAdams’s symptoms were pretty severe for a few days, and he was receiving treatment at a hospital back in Salt Lake City. I’ve spoken with him recently and, thankfully, he’s doing better now. I hope and expect he will make a full recovery.
For my part, knock on wood, I’ve experienced no symptoms to date and my health is very good. I was last with Congressman McAdams on Friday, March 13th. So, it’s been 11 days since my potential exposure and I feel fine.
Unless there are changes to my health in the coming days, I will end my self-quarantine this Friday—two weeks from my exposure date.
Two of my staff members were also potentially exposed to coronavirus and are self-quarantining, and they feel fine too. As you can imagine, my staff are like family to me, and so I’m closely monitoring their condition as well as my own.
All of this serves to underscore that coronavirus is a challenge to our entire community, our entire country, and our entire world. It doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, or what religion or nationality you are, or what language you speak, or the color of your skin.
We are all potentially at risk and we all need to take steps to protect ourselves and others. That means practicing good hygiene and social distancing. It is clear from photos I’ve seen of packed Florida beaches that some people are still not taking this threat seriously—and are endangering themselves and their fellow Americans. That is completely unacceptable.
In terms of government, officials at the federal, state, and local levels need to exercise capable and calm leadership. There is no time for partisanship or petty politics. Coronavirus is tearing at the fabric of our society, but we cannot—we must not—let it break us.
I look forward to hearing from you after I outline Congress’ efforts to respond to the pandemic. I’ll focus on the public health piece, rather than the economic piece, even though coronavirus threatens both our health and our economy—and Congress is fighting back on both fronts.
Obviously, in addition to Congress, federal executive branch agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC, the FDA, and FEMA are taking administrative steps wherever possible to respond to this crisis.
So, too, are state and local governments. We are doing our best to coordinate and collaborate, but the reality is that our federal system can sometimes make a unified response more difficult because there are many different decision-makers, not a single chain of command.
In terms of Congress, we have already passed two major bills this month and are about to pass a third bill.
This third bill, by nearly any measure, will be the largest bill that Congress approves in our country’s 230-year history, totaling about $2 trillion dollars.
The first bill was enacted on March 6th and included:
-$3 billion dollars to fund research and development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics;
-nearly $1 billion dollars for medical supplies like PPE and masks, health care preparedness, and medical surge capacity, including to construct new health facilities; and
-$950 million dollars to support state and local health agencies as they conduct surveillance, lab testing, and contact tracing.
A week ago, as a result of this law, the CDC awarded Florida a $30 million dollar grant to enhance our state’s public health capacity.
The second coronavirus bill was approved on March 18th. It provides free testing for coronavirus for people with all forms of insurance or no insurance at all.
It also increases federal funding for Florida’s Medicaid program. I have called on Governor DeSantis and legislative leaders in Tallahassee to finally expand Medicaid. It was the right thing to do before the coronavirus crisis, and it’s absolutely critical now.
In addition, the law provides more federal support for state unemployment insurance programs. I should note that Florida has arguably the worst unemployment insurance program in the nation, and I have urged state leaders to improve it.
We are already seeing a major uptick in laid-off Florida workers seeking unemployment benefits, and the state needs to do its part to enhance the program and not just rely on the federal government coming to the rescue.
Finally, the law provides for two weeks of emergency sick leave and up to 10 weeks of emergency family and medical leave for certain workers affected by coronavirus. I was deeply involved in drafting this provision.
It is a critical step for Florida because we don’t have state-administered paid leave and many employers do not choose to offer paid leave to their employees. We can discuss the details during the Q-and-A session, because there is some special language in the family and medical leave section related to health care workers.
While I worked hard on this paid leave section, and I am proud of it, I am also working to strengthen it because it does not capture some Florida workers directly affected by coronavirus.
That brings us to the third bill, which I am sure you have been hearing about all over the news. We are very close to a bipartisan agreement on this package and my hope is that it will become law this week.
While the bill it not yet finalized, it is clear that it will include what one senator called a “Marshall Plan” for health care workers and our health care system—and I’m happy to discuss that further during the Q-and-A.
Now I want to hear your views and impressions and questions and recommendations. That’s because—as I said—you are the ones on the front lines. You know what’s working and what isn’t. You know what you need, and what you don’t have.
During our conversation, I want to pay special attention to the things that I know matter most to you—which is the health of your patients and the safety of you and your fellow health workers.
For example, we can discuss the fact there is still an inadequate number of coronavirus tests that are being conducted and there are still not enough public and private labs to swiftly analyze the results of those tests. This makes it harder to diagnose individuals and to isolate and treat those who test positive.
It’s clear to every reasonable observer that there was a system-wide failure in this country with respect to testing. There will be plenty of time later to look back and figure out why. Right now, we need to focus like a laser on fixing the problem going forward.
I’m really pleased that a federally-supported, drive-thru testing center opened at the Orange County Convention Center this week. This site is being used to test senior citizens with symptoms of coronavirus and, importantly, first responders and health care workers like you with or without symptoms. This is the first of what will hopefully be many testing locations in our region. We should learn lessons from South Korea and other countries who got testing right.
We can also discuss the looming shortage in Florida of N95 masks and personal protective equipment kits containing coveralls, gowns, and goggles, and the looming shortage of key medical equipment and supplies like mobile intensive care units, hospital beds, ventilators, and even hand sanitizer.
Governor DeSantis has asked the federal government for far more of these items, and the Florida congressional delegation—on a bipartisan basis—has weighed in with the Trump administration in support of the Governor’s request. Of course, we are competing for scarce resources against other states, some of whom have shortages that are as bad or worse than ours.
The rapid production of vital PPE, equipment, and supplies—and its swift distribution to people like you—is mission-critical. It is clear this will require a whole-of-society approach, involving both the government and the private sector. It may be necessary to use tools like the Defense Production Act to press private industry into action, even though I know many companies are eager to help. If there was ever a moment for corporate patriotism, it is right now.
I will use whatever you tell me on this call to inform my next actions. I’ll also convey the information you give me to my key colleagues in Congress and to senior officials in the Trump administration, especially those at the White House, HHS, and FEMA.
If you have concerns that are better addressed by the Florida government, or by the Orange County or Seminole County governments, I am in constant contact with them as well, and I can pass along your recommendations or concerns.
Please be as candid and as blunt as you want. I and other elected leaders need to hear the ground truth, even if it’s not pretty. In times of crisis, honesty and facts are more critical than ever.
Before we go to questions, I want to let you know that I’m joined on this call by my chief of staff Brad Howard; my legislative director John Laufer; and my district director Lauren Allen. I’ve asked them to chime in from time to time to help address your concerns.
My staff and I are a very close team and I can assure you that, from Washington to Orlando, we are working around-the-clock to help central Florida overcome this crisis.
With that, I want to thank you again and open up the line to hear your perspective and answer any questions you may have for me or my team.