Rep. Michael Burgess, MD: Coronavirus epidemic prompts robust and rapid response from US public health system

Over my time in Congress, there have been several serious epidemics in many parts of the world, caused by the Zika, Ebola, MERS, H1N1 and SARS viruses. While there was concern with each of them, there should be more urgent concern for the 2019 novel coronavirus – COVID-19.

Since Congress’ return to Washington at the start of this year, COVID-19 has infected over 81,000 individuals in at least 38 nations and at least 2,708 people have died. As a result, the coronavirus has proven to be more deadly than SARS.

Although the vast majority of cases and all but 45 deaths have occurred in China, this is a virus of worldwide concern, especially now that it has spread to a growing number of countries.

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Following the rapid spread of the virus, which was first detected in Hubei Province in China at the end of 2019, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency, prompting action by other U.S. agencies. As this is a rapidly evolving epidemic, it is essential the U.S. response remain well-coordinated and nimble.

Yet Congress is slow to take action. To date, only the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has held a hearing.

That will change Wednesday, when the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hold a hearing on COVID-19. Five Republican members and five Democratic members will be able to ask questions about the Health and Human Services Department’s response to this outbreak. I am one of those members.

As the Republican leader of the Health Subcommittee and the most senior physician in Congress, I appreciate the chance to utilize my expertise and ask questions about the administration’s efforts to combat the spread of this virus.

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I am particularly interested in learning about the domestic supply of personal protective equipment and the use of pandemic flu preparedness plans in the wake of this outbreak. It is my hope by delaying the onset of the virus in the United States, we have enhanced our preparedness activities and our communities will be ready, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, not if but when.

The Trump administration has taken action. The State Department issued a Level 4 – the highest level – travel advisory for China, and the administration has been appropriately restrictive in allowing non-citizens who have traveled to China from entering the U.S.

The CDC also issued travel guidance for a number of countries and has worked to ensure that the American public is aware of the necessary precautions to avoid becoming infected. As the coronavirus outbreak evolves in other countries, the CDC has been updating its travel guidance and will continue to evaluate its recommendations.

Our agencies are working together to protect the American people from this outbreak. Thus far they have been successful in limiting infections in the U.S.

Last year Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019. I believe that our response efforts have shown that this legislation is working and our public health system has adapted and improved since the Zika and Ebola responses.

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Close collaboration and efforts between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and our state, local, tribal, and territorial public health partners has been vital in making this progress.

Much like politics, much of public health is local and is executed on the ground by our hospitals, health departments, and emergency responders who are our front lines addressing infectious diseases, disasters and threats. Coordination among these health workers is critical in the midst of an outbreak.

In addition to our government infrastructure for emergency preparedness, we have seen the pharmaceutical industry and research institutions step up to work on a vaccine for COVID-19. With a virus as contagious as this one, it is imperative vaccine development continues as quickly as possible.

It is heartening to see researchers across the nation take on this task. There are currently no therapeutics approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of COVID-19. But it is encouraging to see the National Institutes of Health acting swiftly to conduct a randomized, controlled clinical trial to test an anti-viral agent called remdesivir, in the hope of obtaining a safe and effective treatment. The development of therapeutics and vaccines is important.

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Americans must remain vigilant by knowing the symptoms, by taking action if they suspect they might have those symptoms, and by seeking treatment to help prevent the spread of this coronavirus. What we are witnessing right now is that thus far during this outbreak, our public health system is working as federal, state, and local health officials work in tandem in this robust, rapid response.

I am grateful our country has dedicated health workers on the forefront of this outbreak. We are safer because of their efforts.

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