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Oregon senator had a role in shaping $8.3 billion for efforts aimed at checking spread of respiratory disease.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Dr. Caroline Grady Castillo speaks about the COVID-19 virus at U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley's town hall meeting attended by more than 150 people on Saturday, March 7, at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says newly approved billions in federal aid, which he had a role in shaping, will boost efforts to thwart the spread of the COVID-19 virus causing respiratory disease.

"We have tried to tackle it from every direction," the Oregon Democrat said Saturday, March 7, during a town hall meeting and a brief interview beforehand at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.

"If it spreads as easily as the flu, and if it's as bad as the flu, we're going to have a lot of people affected by this."

But Merkley said there is still much to learn about how fast the virus spreads and how severe it is to public health.

Merkley spoke as Congress, in a rare moment of bipartisanship last week, approved $8.3 billion in new money for virus-fighting efforts. President Donald Trump signed the bill (HR 6074), which set aside more than three times what he requested. Trump asked for $1.5 billion and planned to divert another $1.5 billion from other health programs.

Of the total, $3 billion will go toward research and development of vaccines and treatments; $2.2 billion for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to aid state and local governments with lab testing and infection control; $1.25 billion for the State Department to aid other nations; $1 billion for supplies, preparedness and aid to community health centers, and just under $1 billion in loan subsidies for small businesses affected by the virus.

CDC reported more than 1,600 cases nationwide as of Friday, March 13; updates are issued on weekdays. Oregon Health Authority reported 30 cases as of March 13.

FDA role

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks at a town hall meeting Saturday, March 7, at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas. More than 150 people attended and apparently were not deterred by fears of the COVID-19 virus causing respiratory disease.Though CDC and state and local health agencies are on the front line, Merkley said his role touched on the Food and Drug Administration, which is in charge of drugs and protective equipment. He is the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA budget.

According to a report released in 2017 by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, FDA estimates that 40% of all finished drugs and 80% of pharmaceutical ingredients are made outside the United States. China, which has reported the most COVID-19 cases, and India are major suppliers.

Merkley said the new legislation emphasizes the concept of continuous manufacturing within the United States "so we are not so dependent on imports that may be disrupted."

He said during the interview that the COVID-19 virus outbreak raises the latest question about that dependence, which may make some medications unavailable.

"We saw critical cancer drugs where ingredients had broken down in the supply chain," he said. "People would be in the middle of their cancer treatments and be unable to get their next treatment. The stress of not being able to access drugs is not a stress you want to face when you are in the middle of any serious disease. It's something we need to take a lot closer look at."

Merkley said Trump misled the public in stating that a preventative vaccine would be available by fall. Clinical trials of a vaccine may start in the fall, but that's different from having something available for public use.

"These things are not true and are unhelpful. We have a real disease on our hands that has spread nationally," Merkley said.

"Even with all of that (aid), the best estimate on a vaccine is probably a year and a half off in terms of availability to the public."

Personal effects

Merkley said that public concern about the virus has already affected him personally.

Attendance at his earlier town hall meeting in Woodburn was about 40, about a third of the usual attendance, although aides said hundreds did view a live-streaming of the meeting via Facebook. Also, Merkley said he was scheduled to speak at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, but organizers canceled the 10-day event planned March 13-22.

"The point is that this is a significant disease," he said, "We are not sure how fast it will be moving throughout the population, especially with people being careful about hand contact, which is a major source of transmission. We also are not sure how lethal it is."

Merkley said during the past decade, seasonal flu claims between 14,000 and 60,000 lives annually, depending on the severity of the virus — or about one-10th of 1% of the total.

"But we also should think about the fact that we do not shut down society because of the flu," he said.

Fear of the virus apparently did not deter the crowd for the meeting at Camp Withycombe, which drew more than 150 people. Merkley has conducted 419 town halls during more than 11 years in the Senate, and the March 7 meeting was his 23rd in Oregon this year.

"I am pleased that people are continuing to live their lives and engage in civic events," Clackamas County Commissioner Sonya Fischer said afterward.

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NOTE: Updates COVID-19 total cases nationally and in Oregon as of March 13.

Other issues

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered comments on other issues during a town hall meeting March 7 in Clackamas:

Housing: "At the national level, what I can fight for is a lot more resources. We need the whole spectrum (of housing options) and we need to invest a whole lot more."

Merkley, a former director of Portland Habitat for Humanity, said he is working with others to present a sweeping plan for aid. He said Congress has increased spending on aid to the homeless, rental assistance and housing, "but it's a modest amount of money" compared to the billions spent on the war in Afghanistan.

Health care: Merkley has sponsored a bill to link U.S. drug prices to median prices — half above and half below — in 11 developed nations. Trump initially endorsed a proposal to set U.S. prices at the lowest of the 11-nation average, but then backed off after meeting with drugmakers.

Merkley also is sponsoring a bill allowing people a "public option" to buy into the federal Medicare program, which covers people 65 and older and some people with disabilities. "We will not be able to pass anything like this public option," he said.

But Merkley likens the concept to Oregon's requirement for businesses to insure their workers for on-the-job injuries.

"Doesn't it make sense to use what works well in the workplace to have that option outside the workplace?"

Hong Kong: Merkley did notch a success last year when Congress included his proposed ban on U.S. exports of crowd-control and surveillance equipment to Hong Kong, where police are suppressing pro-democracy demonstrators. Merkley spoke about the "bells of freedom" when S. 1838 was passed, and activists asked him to make a videotape — which was broadcast to 100,000 people gathered on the streets. "That was pretty cool," he said.

— Peter Wong

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