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Sen. Alexander: Increased virus testing ‘the only thing that will work’ to solve crisis

Sen. Lamar Alexander chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which held a hearing Tuesday about the Trump administration’s handling of coronavirus. Alexander himself is in quarantine after a possible exposure, and he joins Judy Woodruff from his Tennessee home to discuss federal pandemic aid, his state’s plans to reopen and President Trump’s crisis response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Worries about the risks of reopening and about a slow recovery took a toll on Wall Street.

    The Dow Jones industrial average lost 516 points, 2 percent, to close below 23248. The Nasdaq fell 139 points, and the S&P 500 gave up 50.

    Senator Lamar Alexander is the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. His hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday focused on the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

    He joins us now from Tennessee, where he is currently in self-quarantine.

    Senator Alexander, thank you very much for talking with us.

    First of all, how are you doing, and how is your staff member doing who had tested positive?

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.:

    He's fine. I just talked with him a few minutes ago.

    He lost his sense of smell, but that's it. You know, that's the symptom that alerted him. And I'm fine, too. I was just exposed for a short period of time, and so, under the protocol, the Senate physician says two weeks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're glad to hear that both of you are doing well so far.

    Let me ask you about yesterday's hearing. As you know, the senior health officials in the Trump administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci and others, testified, essentially, that every state needs to be careful as it opens up, because, if it moves too quickly and doesn't have the adequate amount of testing in place, there could be more illnesses, more deaths, loss of livelihood.

    But, Senator, this comes a day after President Trump said, we have met the moment and prevailed with regard to testing.

    So, who's right here?

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander:

    Well, I think we have a ways to go.

    And I think we will do it state by state, like we do most things in our country. For example, our governor, Bill Lee, is testing aggressively every prisoner, every nursing home resident, drive-through testing on the weekends. Anyone can get a test at the local public health department.

    I talked to a reporter this morning in McMinnville who said he showed up twice and gotten his free test. And the governor's motto, when in doubt, get a test. So, as a result, in our state, we're — we have tested — we will have, by the end of the month, tested about 7 percent of our population, which will help us monitor what's happening as we go back to work and eventually back to school.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you something else about comparing the United States to other countries, like Germany, like South Korea, where testing started much earlier.

    In South Korea, they have been able to hold the total death number to something like 300, compared to 81,000 in the United States.

    What are lessons learned that the U.S. should learn from these other countries?

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander:

    Well, the South Korea example is certainly one that we should pay attention to, because of their lower death number.

    The United States had a glitch at the beginning with a botched test from the CDC. Any president would have been very unhappy with that. But since then, what the United States has done has been very impressive, nearly 10 million tests conducted to date, twice as many as any country, more per capita than South Korea, for example, which is very good news for principals and chancellors who are thinking about all the students who will want to go back to school in August, because it creates the possibility that you can test whole classes or whole schools as part of a way of keeping them safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing in connection with this, Senator.

    The president has been pressing some states that have not been prepared to open early, like Pennsylvania, and said that they're making a mistake. He said yesterday there just seems to be no effort in getting certain blue states to get back in gear.

    Should he be pressing these states this way?

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander:

    Well, he can do whatever he wants to do. He's the president.

    He also told the state of Georgia they were going too fast. And that's a red state. So, I think most governors don't want to be told by the president what to do. They want to be able to have the tests their way, the schedules their way, the colleges their way.

    And I think the president understands that. He's got a right to express his own opinion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, we have — we know that the House of Representatives is looking at legislation this week to provide aid to state and local governments. The figure $3 trillion has been thrown out.

    A trillion of that supposedly would be for state and local governments. Have you decided where you stand on that?

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander:

    Well, I haven't seen it.

    I have decided this, that we ought to send the money that we have already appropriated out — that's $3 trillion — and see how it works. Most of it, much of it has not yet gone out. For example, all the money for hospitals hasn't gone out.

    And the first thing we should do with states is give them more flexibility on the money we have already given them.

    But no amount of money will solve the hurt that this is causing people. The only thing that will work are testing, tracking those who are exposed, isolating the sick, and then moving ahead on a very rapid pace with treatments and vaccines, which is happening right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Lamar Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Health Committee.

    Senator, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander:

    Thank you, Judy.

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