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Washington State Lawmaker Meets With Pence About Coronavirus


The coronavirus continues its alarming spread in the U.S. It's been reported in more than 20 states, with the highest number in Washington state. So we reached out to Senator Patty Murray. She's been advocating for her hard-hit constituents.


Senator Patty Murray is the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, and she represents Washington state.


PATTY MURRAY: Nice to be on with you today.

SHAPIRO: You've said that you're frustrated by the way the Trump administration has rolled out testing for the coronavirus. In practical terms, what does this rollout mean for people in your state who fear that they or their loved ones might be sick with this disease?

MURRAY: I am very frustrated and angry because people are sick, they go to the doctor, the doctor tells them the only thing we can say to you is to go home and stay home for two weeks. Imagine what that feels like to somebody who has a job, who has kids, who's, you know, got all the things on their plate that every family does, may lose their paycheck, may not be able to put food on the table because of that.

And now it's grown to businesses who are telling their employees to stay home, from Microsoft to many of our major employers, and today we're hearing the University of Washington is announcing that they're not going to hold any classes live on campus, to school districts that are being shut down. And I'm talking to parents in a school district that's now been shut down for at least two weeks, and they're desperately trying to figure out how to deal with kids who are on free and reduced meals. How do they get them meals? How did they get instructions to their students? And this has wide-ranging impacts.

SHAPIRO: And did you raise these frustrations with the vice president when you spoke to him? And what was his response?

MURRAY: I told him, stop telling us things that are not real. You know, people are pretty good with dealing with reality; they're not good with dealing with misinformation or empty promises. People need to know the facts, and they need to know how to take care of themselves, their families, their communities, their businesses. And to have this, we're all OK, everything is going to be good, go to work kind of approach - is not what the reality is on the ground.

SHAPIRO: When a big organization, like Microsoft or the University of Washington, is making a decision to tell people to stay home, who are they seeking guidance from? Is there a good chain of command here? Can you understand who's in charge and giving the advice?

MURRAY: The best advice we're getting is from our public health agencies. They are desperately trying to follow the guidelines that CD has put out.

SHAPIRO: You mean the CDC has put out?

MURRAY: Yeah. And the CDC has put out changing guidelines. Remember - the CDC originally said, don't test anybody unless they've been traveling. Well, that's far too late in our state because this is now community spread. So people are being impacted and are sick who didn't ever travel and they may just have gone to a grocery store.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. had time to prepare for this while the virus was in China but not yet on American soil. Do you think it used that time effectively?

MURRAY: Absolutely not. Ari, if there's one thing I am furious about is - I have been tracking and trying to get the best information since the first case was announced in the state of Washington. Are we prepared for what clearly has happened in other places in the world? CDC said, we're going to get the test kits out. They took a long time to do it. When they got them out, they weren't working. They recalled them. They said, no worries; we'll have tests out in - by the end of the week. We have the vice president and the president saying there's a million, a million and a half out there.

I'm talking to people on the ground in Washington state who are sick, who are going to their doctor and being told, we do not have test kits; go home.

SHAPIRO: Given that there aren't enough test kits, what's your sense of how many undiagnosed cases there might be in Washington state right now?

MURRAY: Oh, I suspect there is a lot more than is being told to us right now. If you just look at the death rate right now compared to the number of positive cases, you know that there's a lot of people.

SHAPIRO: Right. Because so far, given the number of diagnoses, about 10% of people have died, and as best we can tell, the mortality rate of this disease is far lower, like somewhere around 2%.

MURRAY: Absolutely correct. And just from the people I know who are telling me that their child is sick, they're sick, their family's sick, but they're not being tested; they're just told to stay home. So anecdotally, I'm going to tell you, the number is much higher.

SHAPIRO: So given that this could be the new reality for weeks or even months, what can you do to help the people and businesses that are so severely affected by this?

MURRAY: Well, I am trying to ask everyone and work on practical solutions. One of them that I believe we absolutely need to do very quickly is to pass a sick leave provision that will allow any kind of emergency like this public health that requires people to be at home to be paid. Otherwise, your low-income workers - I mean, a lot of people working at hotels and restaurants or a nursing facility - who are low-income, hourly wage workers don't have any paid sick leave, they're going to have to go out and work somewhere to pay - to care for their family.

We need an emergency sick leave pay for these people so that they can stay home and take care of themselves and their families and not continue to spread the virus.

SHAPIRO: I know you've just introduced this, but in a divided Congress, do you think something like this is likely to pass quickly enough to actually help the people who need it?

MURRAY: We have to have this. We know containment is the only way to deal with this virus right now, and you can't just assume that everybody can stay home, and in fact, we know that they cannot. If we want to contain this virus, we need real policies that allow people to stay home. And that's just one of them. The cost of the test right now is a real question. If, in the future, we have a way to be able to care for people with this with some kind of medication or in the future with a vaccine, making sure that it is not just the wealthy people who can afford it but that everyone has access to it.

SHAPIRO: As other states start to confirm cases of this coronavirus, are there steps you would recommend they take to avoid the situation that Washington is in now?

MURRAY: What I'm seeing right now is the absolute planning that is critical that every - I would recommend every school district take. What are you going to do if you have to shut down for two weeks or more? How can you make sure that your students get access to learning? Northshore School District in our state of Washington is making sure that laptops are available to all students free of charge. They are making sure that every student has their own ability to be able to talk to their teacher, get their lessons plans and get it back. They are scaling this up quickly. A lot of districts need to be thinking, right now, how do we have that plan in place?

SHAPIRO: So you're not giving people advice on how to avoid the situation that Washington state is in; you're giving people advice on how to deal with the perhaps inevitable future in which they are in that situation?

MURRAY: Ari, if you had told me 10 days ago the situation on the ground that I'm seeing right now in Washington state was going to be real, I would have said, are you sure? Every school district in this nation should have a plan in place should their school district have to shut down because of a public health emergency.

SHAPIRO: Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington state, thank you for speaking with us.

MURRAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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