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Sen. Barrasso on remdesivir and why it’s ‘too early’ to talk about state bankruptcies

As the debate over reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the country, many states are beginning to lift restrictions. Wyoming is one of them -- with a relatively low number of cases, businesses there will start to open Friday. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who is also a physician, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the pandemic and why it's "too early" to talk about state bankruptcies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the debate over reopening states rages across the country, a similar dispute is under way in the nation's capital.

    The House of Representatives remains in recess, but senators will return to Washington in just a few days, for the first time in more than a month.

    Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming is the third highest-ranking Republican in the Senate. He's also a physician. And he joins us now from Casper.

    Senator Barrasso, thank you very much for joining us again. It's good to see you.

    I want to start out by asking you, as a doctor, how encouraged are you by these latest reports about this antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment for the coronavirus?

  • Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.:

    Well, I'm very encouraged by this.

    I will tell you, Judy, this is very important for all of America, because that's what we need, a treatment for this virus. That's the way that we get beyond this terrible medical condition, as well as the economic disaster that has occurred to the country.

    We need to have therapeutics available, and this is really a good sign of hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you see it as turning a corner?

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    Well, I really do. It is a light at the end of the tunnel. It's an opportunity to more quickly open the economy.

    In Wyoming, we are opening our state tomorrow. We're doing it the right way. The governor is working closely with our health officers. We're going to do it smartly, safely. And we're going to be returning, as the Senate, to Washington on Monday.

    But I think this is really good news. When you take a look at the fact that we have 30 million Americans who are unemployed right now because of the pandemic, we need to do everything we can to help those people get back to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I also want to ask you about testing, Senator, because people are asking, how long is it going to take to get to where the United States needs to be on testing?

    Right now, per capita, we are only about half of where Germany is, and we're behind a number of other countries. What — when can Americans look for testing to be where it needs to be?

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    We're getting closer.

    Dr. Fauci said we need about three million tests a week. We're at about two million tests a week. We lost about six weeks by the delays in the contamination from the Centers for Disease Control back in February and early March. We're moving in the right direction.

    We're now at a point in Wyoming where we have enough tests that we feel we can safely open, because we have the medical supplies, we have the hospital beds, and we have the testing to make sure that, if there's a flare-up, we will be able to detect it quickly.

    We have been fortunate in Wyoming to not have that many cases, only about 400. But the impact of this virus has hit everyone in America. In Wyoming, it's hit us more from the economic standpoint than it has from the medical standpoint, because it has flatlined our economy in terms of energy, in terms of agriculture, in terms of tourism.

    And that's why people of Wyoming are so happy. They want to get back to work, and we're going to get back to work tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of the economy and struggles that states are having, as you probably know, Democrats, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi is saying — in fact, she said today, she's looking for there to be a need of up to a trillion dollars aid in coming years to state and local governments hit hard by this pandemic. Revenues are not coming in.

    At this point, Republicans are not on board with that. And, in fact, your leader, Mitch McConnell, said just a few days ago he thinks it's acceptable for states to think about bankruptcy.

    Where are you on this?

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    Well, he certainly got everyone's attention with that statement, but I think that's much too early to go down that line.

    We had a conference of all of the Republicans today by phone, talking specifically about the needs. We all know there are 30 million Americans who are out of work today because of coronavirus. We know they are going to need help. We want to do it in a way that is targeted and is temporary.

    It needs to be bipartisan, which is what we had last time with the CARES Act, 96-0 in the Senate. But it has to focus on the impacts of coronavirus.

    What we have said is, it's time to temporarily push the pause button, to make sure that all of this $2.7 trillion that has been committed is being used wisely. The states are asking for more money. The states just got $150 billion last Tuesday.

    So, none of those states have had an opportunity yet to see how far that's going to go, what the needs are. What we really need to do is push the start button to get the economy moving again. And the sooner we can do that, Judy, the better it's going to be for everyone.

    So, my goal is to get the economy moving. And this medical breakthrough, I think, is one of the big helpers to help us down that line.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In connection with all that, as you know, a lot of complaints, a lot of criticism about the facts that businesses that were big and successful have gotten big chunks of the money that has gone out that was intended for small, struggling businesses.

    How confident are you that, going forward, there are going to be the safeguards, the guardrails in place to make sure the money goes to the people who need it?

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    No, I have heard the stories and share the concerns of those people who have seen those reports of, whether it's the L.A. Lakers or whoever getting it.

    In Wyoming, we have had over 7,000 loans to small businesses, mom-and-pop small businesses, over $800 million. The program is working. And it's going to need to continue to work to help get these people back to work and make sure these businesses are there.

    The early goals were to just get the money out as quickly as we could to try to keep people on the payroll. This was such an overprescribed program that what we saw is, it ran out of money and sat empty for about 10 days, while the Democrats played politics and tried to get political leverage under Speaker Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

    That should have never been allowed to happen. We now have this funded again. It is working for small businesses. And any business that signed an affidavit that said, we need the money and it's coronavirus-impacted, they are not going to have those loans forgiven if they really didn't need the money.

    And, rightly, a number of them that's been pointed at have returned the money, so that can be used for the mom-and-pop small businesses all across the country who really need it badly, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, Senator, I want to ask you about President Trump's leadership.

    You have certainly defended him. You have said he's done a very good job of leading the country through this.

    But I just want to quickly quote something he said at the end of February.

    He said, at this point, there were 15 people in America who had died (*see note below*), he said: "This is going to be down close to zero. We have done a pretty good job."

    Senator, here we are, two months later, more than 61,000 Americans have died, over a million cases, a third of the cases in the world. The president's son-in-law is saying it's a big success story.

    How do you square this?

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    Well, Dr. Fauci, just a couple of weeks ago, was talking about hundreds of thousands of Americans dying. The New York Times talked about millions of Americans dying.

    The president has led from in front. He has listened to the medical experts, to Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauci, has done that regularly. And I believe he has now put the entire force of the United States government in this fight against coronavirus.

    There is a light at the end of the tunnel. And the president is pointing that road to the future for a return to a healthy economy. And the quicker we can get America back to work, the better.

    The president has a lot of things to balance, national security, economic safety for the country, the physical safety of the country, and he's continuing to work hard day to get that balance right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he also said at the end of February the country was close to zero.

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    Well, we know what the numbers are today. And that's what I'm doing.

    We can spend a lot of time pointing fingers. I know the House wants to put a commission together to go after the president.

    I want to focus, as a doctor and as a senator for Wyoming, on getting Wyoming open again, getting businesses going, getting a strong, healthy, robust economy back to place, and saving as many lives as we can in the process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, joining us from Casper, thank you very much, Senator.

  • Sen. John Barrasso:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Correction:

    Judy Woodruff mistakenly said 15 Americans had died of COVID-19 in late February. She meant that there were 15 confirmed U.S. cases of the disease then. We regret the error.

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