Secretary Elaine Chao: USDOT Part of Government Plan to Address Coronavirus

Vice President Mike Pence (bottom right), arrives at the Capitol with other coronavirus task force members and staff to brief U.S. House members. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON — A White House task force led by Vice President Mike Pence that is tackling the spread of the coronavirus is assisted by input from transportation officials, Secretary Elaine Chao reminded senators March 4.

The task force, established last month, includes Joel Szabat, the acting under secretary for policy at the Department of Transportation.

“It is actually more ideal, and safer for the public, if there was a coordinated effort governmentwide, rather than individual government agencies unilaterally going ahead and implementing their plan,” Chao told the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.



Chao

“We want to be responsive. We want to be quick. New things pop up. So we are working with the governmentwide response plan and, you know, we hope to resolve that one,” she continued. The previous week, Chao told House lawmakers that federal aviation officials were working with international counterparts to provide health information.

Besides Szabat, Pence’s task force includes Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.

Pence noted the government is screening travelers taking direct flights from Italy and South Korea to the United States.

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“We did have a discussion today with Homeland Security officials, and they are preparing recommendations to the president regarding screening on our end if we determine that that is also necessary,” the vice president said March 3. The task force and President Donald Trump have met with health officials, executives from airlines and pharmaceutical firms.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are pushing a response to the coronavirus. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) on March 4 introduced an $8.3 billion bill meant to carry out public health activities. House and Senate passage is expected this month. “The American people are counting on our government for a fully funded, coordinated and comprehensive governmentwide response to the coronavirus,” Lowey said.

Lowey

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on Capitol Hill on March 3, “I’m very optimistic we’re going to come together on a bicameral, bipartisan basis with a package.”

Meanwhile, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) asked Chao for details about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s preparation for the coronavirus. A spokesperson for DeFazio told Transport Topics the chairman had yet to hear from the secretary’s office.

“The lack of effective federal-led coordination and collaboration with industry in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak has become apparent over the last several weeks,” DeFazio and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, wrote Chao on Feb. 26. “U.S. airlines have expressed concern about the scope of CDC requests and expectations regarding airlines’ collection of certain inbound passenger data, and CDC officials have expressed concern about their ability to access information from the airlines.”

The Federal Aviation Administration website includes an alert from March 3 about a recommendation from the Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid nonessential travel to Italy. Travel advisories for countries, such as South Korea, Japan, China and Iran, also were included on the FAA website. The Federal Highway Administration website highlighted an outside article about the coronavirus’ potential impact to the supply chain.

DeFazio

Trump has emphasized public safety is his administration’s priority as it addresses the coronavirus. The president also noted markets would recover after recent record lows. As he put it March 3, “The country is in great shape. The market is in great shape.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared more than 1,290 points March 2, setting a record for a single-day point gain.

When asked Feb. 29 what would be the effect from a halt on travel and interruptions to the supply chain, Trump told reporters, “It’s certainly not a good situation when you lose travel. That’s a big part of [the] market. But for a period of time, we’re going to have to do whatever is necessary. Safety, health, No. 1.”

According to CDC, 60 cases of individuals with COVID-19, the disease resulting from the virus, have been reported as of March 3. States that reported cases include New Hampshire, Georgia, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Six individuals in Washington state were determined to have died from COVID-19.

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