I’ve seen how difficult the past few months have been for people in Minnesota and across the country.
Our state and nation are in the throes of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that has claimed millions of jobs, upended the lives of families, devastated businesses, and strained rural and urban health care systems. Tragically, this fast-moving, silent virus – with no known cure - has already taken tens of thousands of American lives and is expected to take thousands more.
From my home in Minnesota, I’ve spent long hours talking to hundreds of nurses, doctors, and hospital officials, as well as with business, school, non-profit, and tribal leaders about the toll the pandemic is taking on our state. I’ve also conferred daily with state and local officials and with my colleagues in Washington, D.C. We all understand that in the coming weeks and months we have a lot of work to do – and difficult choices to make – in order to contain the virus, get families and businesses back on their feet, and safely reopen the economy.
In March - as the breadth and seriousness of the pandemic grew - Congress enacted three separate bipartisan funding packages to respond. Those measures targeted trillions of dollars in urgently-needed relief - first to hospitals and health care workers to help them deal with the surge in infected patients - and then to the millions of hard-hit small businesses, families, and workers to help keep them afloat as we battle this pandemic.
While these ongoing efforts have been far from perfect, they are having a positive impact. Minnesota families have begun receiving relief checks. Workers who have lost jobs are receiving expanded unemployment benefits. And, by mid-April, more than 46,300 Minnesota small businesses were approved for forgivable loans totaling $9 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
This month, after crushing demand from hard-hit businesses quickly depleted PPP resources, Congress and the Administration recognized the need to replenish the program and enacted a fourth bipartisan agreement that included $370 billion to allow more businesses to get needed loans. About $60 billion of that amount is reserved to make sure we don’t leave behind small and rural main street businesses, as well as minority-owned and women-owned businesses. During negotiations, Senate Democrats insisted the package also include an additional $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for badly-needed coronavirus testing and contact tracing.
From the outset of this crisis, we have known that coronavirus testing will be key to understanding how widespread the contagion is in communities and how quickly we can re-open the economy. My provision to make all coronavirus testing free of charge was signed into law in March, removing cost as a barrier to people seeking a test. Since then, federal health officials have confirmed that the provision also covers “antibody” tests to help identify people who have had the virus, recovered, and possibly developed immunity.
Adequate access to personal protective equipment and widespread testing and contact tracing will get us through this public health crisis. I’m deeply disappointed that the Trump Administration has failed to organize a comprehensive coordinated plan that experts tell us we need. In response, I am leading a group of 45 Senate Democrats in demanding that Vice President Pence - and the Coronavirus Task Force he leads - quickly identify gaps in our nation’s testing procedures and put together a public plan to fill them.
As I’ve worked to respond to this pandemic, I have made the health and safety of Americans a top priority. I’ve supported Governor Walz’s call for Minnesotans to take life-saving precautions like staying home and using social distancing to keep communities safe. The Governor’s actions have made our state a national model for effectively slowing the spread of the virus.
In March, as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, the President also signed into law key parts of my bipartisan legislation to help prevent drug shortages by improving reporting of potential supply shortfalls and helping to increase the stock of important medications patients will need during this pandemic and into the future.
As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I understand that Minnesota Tribes are on the front lines of this public health crisis and I pushed to get them resources to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic, and to cover health care needs. To do that, we established an $8 billion Tribal Government Relief fund to assist with economic recovery and continuation of essential government services. We also approved more than $2 billion to fund the Indian Health Service, public safety and the purchase of protective equipment for emergency personnel.
The fight to defeat the deadly coronavirus has already been long and difficult. But, in Minnesota I’ve seen a spirit and resilience that will help get us through these trying times. In Washington, I’ve seen bipartisan cooperation and investment in our country that, going forward, will help us build back better and build back stronger.
Tina Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.