Rep. Huffman offers leadership amid crisis

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“Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.”

— Dr. Rick Bright, former federal medical research agency director

Dr. Rick Bright was dismissed from his job fighting the coronavirus pandemic after resisting a dubious presidential directive promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven and hazardous drug, ostensibly to prevent contracting the virus. In Congressional testimony this past week, Bright explained that Donald Trump’s desperate fixation on hydroxychloroquine, which can cause dangerous heart problems, was emblematic of the administration’s profound failure to implement a coordinated, science-based national strategy for testing, contact tracing and isolating infected patients. As a result, according to Bright, many Americans have died unnecessarily.

Also last week, a pointed editorial in The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most well-respected medical journals, called the U.S. response to the pandemic “inconsistent and incoherent,” noting the country “is nowhere near able to provide the basic surveillance or laboratory testing infrastructure needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.” The U.S. public health strategy, it said, was being guided by the president’s “partisan politics.”

Congressman Jared Huffman, who has represented Petaluma for more than seven years in Washington, agrees with these assessments. He also concurs with Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who last week declared that “Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.”

This helps explain why Huffman joined his fellow Democratic House legislators Friday in voting to borrow nearly $3 trillion dollars to correct the Trump administration’s tragically botched response to the virus, provide badly needed relief to state and local governments and help tens of millions of American families who are jobless, hungry, lacking healthcare coverage or unable to pay the rent.

In a thinly veiled reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s troubling statement last week that Republicans had not yet felt the “urgency of acting immediately” to address the crisis, Huffman told me on Friday that Democrats “have a different view on the urgency of the matter, and we got tired of waiting for the Republicans to act.”

The proposed legislation, according to Huffman, mandates a coherent, unified national strategy for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and treatment measures to help guide states, counties and healthcare organizations struggling to fend for themselves in the pandemic. “If we don’t get this part right, then none of the other strategies for reopening the economy” will be successful, said Huffman.

Nearly $1 trillion dollars will go to state and local governments to ensure that public safety, health care workers and teachers can continue working. Also included are public subsidies for housing, health care and food stamps.

Acknowledging the extraordinarily steep price tag of the legislation atop the relief measures adopted earlier, Huffman said, “We’re going to have an economic crisis like the Great Depression. The mentality (among Democrats) is to spend whatever it takes to get us through this crisis. The hard part will be paying for it when it’s over.”

While acknowledging Democrats are willing to compromise on some aspects of the bill to win its final passage into law, Huffman said its main components are specifically aimed at saving jobs and lives.

He praised California Governor Gavin Newsom for working to balance the fight against the virus with a safe reopening of the economy, but said that the Trump administration’s failure to implement a national strategy was forcing all 50 states to go it alone, creating a dangerously uneven approach certain to bring about a resurgence of the virus around the country and a national economic recovery “that looks more like a W than a V.”

Despite the initial negative reaction from the President and the Republican-controlled Senate, Huffman said the bill’s passage in the House “puts a lot more pressure on the administration to act responsibly.”

In California, Gov. Newsom on Monday sensibly relaxed state regulations for business reopenings and agreed to give counties more flexibility in adopting pragmatic policies designed to get people back to work.

Sonoma County is ready and able to take full advantage of the new guidelines due to ramped up testing, tracking and treatment programs, and because residents here have adhered to the strict public health protocols mandated by County Public Health Officer Sundari Mase, formerly with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, expect to see more businesses opening up in the weeks and months ahead and a slow but steady rebuilding of the local economy.

Still, Huffman warned that travel and tourism, prime drivers of the Sonoma County economy, “will not come back quickly” and may not fully recover until a vaccine is developed and approved for widespread use, probably in one or two years.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, President Trump this week proudly declared he had started taking hydroxychloroquine, the same dangerous and ineffective drug he improperly forced public health officials to hawk, thus setting a terrible example for his loyal followers across the country, many of whom might well try to copy him.

After all, the same thing happened last month after Trump publicly mused about injecting disinfectants to combat the virus, an astonishingly irresponsible statement that sparked hundreds of calls to state health hotlines and caused Lysol to warn buyers not to inject or ingest its products.

Who knows? Perhaps Trump’s reckless self-medicating will spark a sudden burst of lucidity and commonsense leadership, prompting him to begin doing the right things to battle the pandemic and reopen the economy safely.

We can only hope.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at

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