WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in China climbing each day, infectious disease experts are warning United States lawmakers that the government must act now to ensure it is ready to contain and treat the virus in case it gains a foothold here.
The U.S. has recorded only 13 cases of COVID-19, but the strain of coronavirus has infected tens of thousands and killed 1,100 in China, where the outbreak started.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee held a special roundtable hearing Wednesday to learn what government agencies are doing about COVID-19 and how lawmakers can help.
“This is kind of revealing some gaps in our system here which we need to address,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said.
He and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the U.S. is dangerously dependent on China for vaccines, medical devices and protective gear like masks and gloves.
“If we’re reliant on China to produce vaccines for us in the United States, I suspect they’ll use those vaccines for their own people first,” Peters said.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the U.S. needs new drug policies to ensure lifesaving products are readily available.
“If this extends in China another month or two, I think we’re going to start to see some shortages of critical components,” he said.
Health experts on the panel said the best way to combat COVID-19 to invest more money to help federal, state and local governments prepare.
“The whole system of public health is being left behind,” Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., noted small communities are especially vulnerable.
“There seems to be a distribution of responsibility but not a distribution of resources,” she noted.
Leaders of the Trump administration’s CDC and Department of Homeland Security were invited to the roundtable, but did not appear. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were disappointed by their absence.
The full Senate was briefed on the state of COVID-19 later Wednesday.
Sen. Johnson said he’s planning more hearing to ensure the U.S. stays ahead of the outbreak.