Congressman Jeff Fortenberry held a town hall via conference call Thursday afternoon to answer some questions about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortenberry was joined by Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who fielded medical questions and Leon Milobar, director of the Small Business Administration in Nebraska.
Constituents who called in asked a number of questions including questions about the virus itself, the government’s response and how the next few months will unfold economically and in the medical world.
Fortenberry gave a brief overview of what the average person can expect from the federal stimulus passed and signed into law last week: any person with a Social Security number age 17 or older who earned less than $75,000 will receive $1,200. The parents and guardians of children 16 and younger will receive $500 on their behalf. The check is not taxable. Permanent residents who are not citizens will also receive it, and undocumented immigrants will not.
Fortenberry and Milobar also said businesses can take advantage of disaster loans and a new Paycheck Protection Program. The Paycheck Protection Program will provide loans to small businesses (500 employees or fewer) and the loans will be entirely forgiven if the money is used to keep employees on payroll. Forgiveness will be reduced if either the number of full-time employees decreases or wages decline.
Some callers asked questions about some of the state and federal government’s response.
One caller, identified only by the first name Austin, asked about why Nebraska remains one of the few states as of Thursday afternoon that did not have a statewide shelter-in-place order.
Gold said the decision is ultimately up to the governor, but public health officers are continually providing him up to date facts in order to make decisions.
There are a number of factors to consider, such as how compliant people are and the amount of medical supplies, Gold said, and the state currently has some some reserves of supplies, though those will be exhausted quickly if the public does not flatten the curve.
The governor also has to balance the consequences of either of a total shutdown or looser restrictions.
“If there was a magic answer that worked for everyone, all states would have done the same thing at the same time,” Gold said. “The position of the governor currently is that Nebraska has a healthy balance, but that can change any day.”
Fortenberry also answered a question from a caller named Cheryl on why states and healthcare providers are competing against one another to obtain supplies.
Fortenberry said that many different states and providers already have established suppliers, some of which come from overseas, and that fact makes establishing a centralized system to distribute supplies is difficult, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency has become a centralized authority in this issue to a limited degree.
Several constituents also asked and commented on how the government will change its economic and foreign policy in the future.
Fortenberry said he expects Congress to re-evaluate how it perceives the relationship between China and the U.S., which he described as currently being a “codependent, dysfunctional marriage.”
“We don’t want conflict with China, and we want a good relationship with China,” Fortenberry said. “But we want an authentic relationship with China, one based on the mutual respect of human dignity.”
He said that any system of government and economics should be based on freedom and dignity and China’s mix of authoritarian communism and capitalism is effective system for the wealthy and powerful in their country, but is repressive to the average citizen.
Fortenberry also criticized what he said were free trade policies that gave large corporations an incentive to relocate from the U.S. to China, in favor of the latter’s lax labor laws.
Gold fielded several questions about the virus and how it spreads, saying that many facts about the virus still aren’t completely known.
Gold also explained the process of clinical trials for antiviral treatments and potential vaccines for the virus.
He said there already several trials ongoing and there could be as many as a dozen within the next few weeks. Trials begin by researching the virus’s genetics and then testing potential vaccines on mice, before moving onto a small number of human volunteers. If the vaccine proves safe enough in the first group, it will be distributed to a larger number of people in an area where the virus is currently spreading and the results will be compared.
The ultimate goal, Gold said, is safety and effectiveness.
“The last thing we would ever want is a vaccine that isn’t proven to be safe,” Gold said. “Until we have an effective vaccine or antiviral that can treat the disease in its early stages, we will always be playing catch up.”
Gold said it could be 60 to 90 days before antiviral clinic trials are completed, and an effective vaccine could be more than a year away.
In the mean time, Fortenberry and Gold reiterated that is important to follow all public health guidelines, especially social distancing and vigorous hand washing.
“We still have a ways to go,” Fortenberry said.