HELP Committee Chair Comments On The Reopening Of The U.S. Economy NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Committee questioning top experts who work on fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the Trump Administration.

HELP Committee Chair Comments On The Reopening Of The U.S. Economy

HELP Committee Chair Comments On The Reopening Of The U.S. Economy

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Committee questioning top experts who work on fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the Trump Administration.


This has been a week of warnings. Today ousted vaccine chief-turned-whistleblower Rick Bright warned a House committee that the U.S. is running out of time to get a handle on the coronavirus. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned the U.S. is in the midst of an economic hit that could permanently damage the economy. And the country's top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned of needless suffering and death if the country reopens too quickly. Dr. Fauci, who also sits on the president's coronavirus task force, delivered his warning to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a committee chaired by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who joins me now.

Senator, thanks for taking the time.


KELLY: Let me ask about some of the things that Dr. Fauci said when he was testifying to you and the rest of your committee. He expressed concern about kids returning to school in the fall before there is a vaccine. The president, as you know, scolded him for those remarks. Schools should be opening. Kids should be going back in the fall. I mean, your committee oversees public education in this country. What do you think should happen?

ALEXANDER: Well, if I were still president of the University of Tennessee, the questions for me would be not whether to go back to school but how. I think we should go back to school for the benefit of the students, and I think we'll have the tools to do it. And Dr. Fauci, I think, was misinterpreted. He was saying that vaccines wouldn't be ready by then. We all knew that. But then he turned it over to Admiral Giroir, who said that we'll have four to five times the number of diagnostic tests that we have today and that that ought to be sufficient to allow the principal of a middle school to test every student if she wants to. So testing is the key.

KELLY: And just wondering how you factor in some of the news out of New York, the stories of children who are very sick - toxic shock, multisystem inflammatory syndrome. We heard from the mayor of New York Bill de Blasio today saying 100 children diagnosed with that. Should we be worried about that? Should that be factored into decisions...

ALEXANDER: Of course.

KELLY: ...About when and how schools go back?

ALEXANDER: Of course we should. But let's remember there are 100,000 public schools, 50 million children. There are 5,000 colleges. We have to think about the impact on those children of not going to school for a year. And I think part of our leadership responsibility is not just throw up our hands and say, no, we can't do it. It's to say, we're going back, but we're going to make every effort to do it safely. And, of course, we'll have to do it state by state, community by community. The principal and the teachers and the parents in that community will have to make a decision about balancing the risks. There's a great risk to children not going to school, and there's some health risk if they do. And we'll have - that's what wise leadership is about.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the economics at stake. The House, as you know, is working on and has put out a fifth rescue package. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would like to wait and see and spend all the funds from the last rescue package before looking into a new one. Where do you come down on another - on a fifth rescue package?

ALEXANDER: It's pretty disconcerting to spend $3 trillion, you know, by telephone, which is sort of what we did before, although some of the programs have been very helpful. But there's not enough money to end this virus. It's testing, treatments and vaccines. And as long as we're moving at a record pace on testing, treatments and vaccines and they're isolating those people who are sick and those who are exposed like I was last week, then the rest of us, which are almost all of us, can begin to go back to work and back to school. So before we spend trillions more, I think we should focus on testing, treatments and vaccines.

KELLY: And how should we square that with, as we mentioned, the warning from the chairman of the Fed of possible permanent damage to the economy? That seems to suggest that whatever Congress is going to do, it needs to go ahead and do it.

ALEXANDER: Well, the chairman of the Fed needs to be listened to. But what I think about - this is a different economy problem than we had, for example, in 2008, when we just had a bad economy. We had a great economy three months ago, and then here came the virus. So I see no reason why, as long as we get a vaccine and get treatments and get comfortable with working a little differently, our economy can't be strong again.

KELLY: So if I were just to ask point blank is Congress moving fast enough on this, it sounds like your answer is yes.

ALEXANDER: My answer is yes. I mean, holy smokes. We spent $3 trillion in about three weeks, and we're doing twice as many tests as any country after a bumpy start. And we're building manufacturing plants for vaccines before we even know whether they'll work. We've never done that before, and we're only able to do that because of preparations that were made by President Obama and President Bush and earlier Congresses as well as this president.

KELLY: Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander - he chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for your time. Stay well.

ALEXANDER: Thank you very much, and you, too.

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