Texas congressman Michael C. Burgess says he remembers initially hearing about the novel coronavirus that would become classified as COVID-19 right around January 22, when China shut down public transportation in Wuhan and prohibited residents from leaving the city. Burgess—who represents Texas’s Twenty-sixth district, which includes the majority of Denton County and parts of Tarrant County—is the House of Representatives’ senior medical doctor, so he says he took a particular interest in the emerging virus. A few days later, he was briefed by public health officials in a members-only session in the House.
“It seemed like a pretty bold step for any country, particularly the totalitarian Chinese government, to shut down a city of ten million people,” says Burgess, who as the Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health began requesting hearings in February on the virus and what might be the government response to it. “The early data suggested this was a pretty serious disease.”
Even after the House passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on March 25, Burgess continued to be frustrated by what he believed was a lack of attention by Congress to the core issues surrounding the public health response. By May, Burgess wrote a series of hearing request letters to subcommittee chairwoman Anna Eshoo, asking for a hearing on the Strategic National Stockpile, mental health, racial disparities, provider relief, and testing. At a May 14 hearing of the subcommittee, he told his colleagues, “The lack of attention to these issues is detrimental to our nation’s overall response to this pandemic. Yet we continue to stand on the sidelines instead of becoming fully engaged.”
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Even so, Burgess has described the larger government response to the virus as “rapid and robust.” He’s been complimentary of President Donald Trump’s late-January decision to bar entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous fourteen days and believes the administration has delivered on its promise of wider testing availability.
“The response hasn’t been perfect,” says Burgess, who was endorsed by Trump in January for his 2020 reelection race. “But it rarely is to something that you’ve not seen before and you don’t know all the twists and turns it’s going to take. But has there been an honest effort to really get on top of this? Have people been willing to change their minds when new information becomes available? Yes. And when I look at the people that the president has around him, and not all of them agree with him politically, yet he knows they’re all important and that they all bring their particular contribution to the scientific side of this. I’d say that’s a good thing.”
On this week’s National Podcast of Texas, recorded Thursday afternoon by phone, Burgess addresses Texas’s reopening, the debate over masks, the availability of testing in Dallas, and what he believes the government did and didn’t do right in the early days of the pandemic.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
Burgess says there’s no easy way to balance public health and the economic interests in a pandemic, but believes that since hospitals haven’t been overrun and ventilators are available, it’s time our focus shifts from shutdown mode to reopening Texas.
“In the part of the world that I represent, probably the bigger concern now is not about the coronavirus, but about the fact that unemployment has become a serious, serious problem in an area where unemployment hasn’t been a problem in decades. In the north part of Texas, we had a full-employment economy just really a few short weeks ago and now we’re one of the hardest-hit areas in the state as far when you look at the filings for new unemployment benefits. So it is terribly calamitous on people’s lives, families, their livelihoods, and businesses they worked all their lives to set up. And as a consequence, there’s the likelihood of having a rise in depression, suicide, and domestic abuse, all of which are associated with increased amounts of interpersonal stress. What’s the proper tradeoff? I don’t know if anyone can properly make that assessment. You want to do the things that seemed necessary when the pandemic is still to reach its peak. But at the same time, you don’t want to hold people’s level of activity to such a degree that they’re seriously damaging themselves economically by holding on to that for too long.”
Burgess has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on more than fifty occasions, but allows that the middle of a pandemic might be a difficult time to make major health-care decisions.
“I can’t say that the Affordable Care Act has been terribly helpful, but I think the question actually shifts a little bit. I can certainly see where the people who favor a greater participation of the federal government in the health-care system and see this as the way to get more care to more people and keep the costs down. But it’s also a way to restrict innovation and restrict choices. And is that necessarily a good thing at a time where I would argue that innovation is absolutely critical to survival as a civilization? Innovation is going to hold the key to getting us past this. It always has before. It always will in the future and we will get past this too.”
Burgess is anticipating a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall that’s “a little less intense than the first round,” but it’s the combination of the virus and a bad flu season that keeps him up at night.
“If there is a second wave and it overlays the normal appearance of the seasonal flu, that can be a serious situation. So if you have a bad flu year as well as a recurrent coronavirus epidemic, it could be trouble. Form a doctor’s standpoint, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two in the clinic or the emergency room. Many of the symptoms are similar. There’s no question that we’ll get more refined diagnostic capabilities over the next several months. So maybe some of that problem could be mitigated, but that’s going to be one of the big challenges, particularly for people on the front lines who are delivering the care.”