U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., discussed the implications of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and answered questions during a virtual town hall Tuesday morning. The discussion was hosted by MichBio, an organization that advocates for the biosciences industry in Michigan, and moderated by MichBio President and CEO Stephen Rapundalo. 

Dingell opened the conference by discussing her own personal commitment to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order. She discussed the difficulty she has experienced in drawing the line between a citizen’s personal rights and the common good as Michigan considers reopening and residents protest the lockdown.

“How do we balance an invisible enemy?” Dingell said. “If we know that the scientists tell us that physical distancing, wearing a mask and other appropriate behavior saves your life and somebody else’s life, when does the common good become the right thing to do and how do you protect individual rights in that?”

Dingell explained the progress Congress has made with COVID-19 in the past 50 days, including the passage of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, also known as the COVID 3.5 bill, that allocates additional funding for personal protective equipment in hospitals and assists small businesses, frontline workers, hospitals and health systems through funding. The COVID 3.5 bill emphasizes the domestic testing capacity, allowing an additional $25 billion in funding for a national strategic testing policy which, according to Dingell, is the key to reopening the economy.

Dingell addressed the status of the implementation of the next coronavirus relief bill, focusing on what Congress is doing to mitigate challenges for business owners.

“We did the Paycheck Protection Program so that we can get businesses that are most at risk the emergency funding they needed,” Dingell said. “The first program ran out of money very quickly, quite frankly. It went to people that it wasn't supposed to go to. The money was targeted towards smaller businesses, but the bigger banks had comfortable relationships with larger companies. That is what we were trying to fix in the 3.5 (bill) and we are going to keep on trying to meet the needs of human beings.” 

Dingell spoke about the progress and positive gains of COVID-19 testing, such as antibody tests that screen for past infections. However, she acknowledged the U.S. continues to lack in testing compared to other countries. 

“Currently, about 16 percent of COVID-19 tests in the U.S. are positive,” Dingell said. “For context, countries that are successfully testing at the level needed to contain the epidemic have a positive test rate in the low single digits. We need more tests. It is that simple. Every American should be able to get testing when they need it.”

A member of the audience asked for Dingell’s thoughts on the possibility of an additional stimulus to help families in need. Dingell responded with many different options that may be offered to the public. However, she noted there is uncertainty regarding which options will become available.

“There is concurrence on both Republican and Democratic sides that we need to do another stimulus check,” Dingell said. “I think we will extend unemployment for a longer period of time. We have to mitigate this virus until we create this vaccine and are able to produce it for every person in the world. For people to physically distance and to practice safe health and wear a mask, they have got to feel safe that they can stay home and can afford to put food on their tables.”

The conversation shifted towards research when an audience member questioned if the National Institutes of Health will start allowing science research labs to open as researchers fear they might lose their grants and employees. Dingell said research labs will be one of the first to reopen, but it will take time to make sure reopening is safe.

“There is agreement that when things do slowly reopen that the research labs need to be one of the first places that that happens. I would like to give you a definitive answer,” Dingell said. “I think that the people that are in the research labs are scientists… They understand the need for physical distancing. They understand the importance of their work. I think people are working to get those labs back open, but they are trying to make sure that it is done in a safe way and using data to drive those decisions.”

Dingell expressed gratitude for the research conducted by multiple universities in Michigan, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. The University of Michigan has conducted research that is driving decisions made in the state regarding public health implications and recommendations on peoples’ actions, Dingell explained.

An audience member expressed concerns regarding the difficulty in accessing testing sites. Dingell emphasized that the problem is rooted in the United States supply chain.

“I have a bill that I have introduced with Rep. Jackie Walorski from Indiana,” Dingell said. “We would authorize $500 million annually through fiscal year 2023 to implement a supply chain flexibility manufacturing program that would meet this need (of medical supplies). One silver lining to this horrific time in our history is that we understand how dependent we've become on other countries and that we need to bring our supply chain back to this country. We need to be able to watch out for ourselves as a priority.”

Dingell closed the discussion with an emphasis on maintaining communication of these issues, especially during a global pandemic. 

“We are in a delicate state that is testing our communities and societies” she said. “It is critical that during these times we stay close and talk about what these issues are.”

Daily Staff Reporter Alexandra Greenberg can be reached at aggreenb@umich.edu.

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