BARR: Responding to COVID-19 in Congress

Published 1:03 pm Thursday, April 16, 2020

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Over the last few weeks, the resilience of Kentuckians and all Americans, especially the heroic doctors, nurses and health care workers who have put their health at risk serving others, has been on full display as we fight the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) together.

We also have witnessed the courage of Kentucky’s unsung heroes, going to work every day as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, grocery store employees, truck drivers, postal workers, bank tellers, sanitation workers and cleaning crews despite the danger this virus poses to them.

Their sacrifice helps our communities maintain a sense of normalcy during these trying times.

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In response to this public health emergency and the resulting shutdown of our economy, Congress has passed, with my support and input, three pieces of legislation to mitigate the damage to our communities and daily lives.

Congress first passed an emergency appropriations bill to provide funding for agencies like the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to vastly expand diagnostic testing, antiviral treatments for those afflicted and vaccine development.

Next, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to provide free testing and targeted paid sick, medical and family leave for those afflicted by this disease.  This legislation created a payroll tax credit to reimburse struggling small employers and ensure workers have jobs to return to after their leave, expanded unemployment insurance and provided funding and flexibility for essential programs that help feed those in need in our communities.

In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This $2.2 trillion relief package supports individuals and families, distressed businesses of all sizes and our doctors, health care workers and hospitals.

It is the most aggressive fiscal rescue legislation in American history.

The CARES Act provides Kentucky small businesses, workers and families with desperately-needed funds to pay their bills and face the economic challenges this virus has created, including the following:

The recovery rebate program in which Americans with a valid Social Security number will receive direct financial assistance of $1,200 for individuals with adjusted gross income at or below $75,000 and $2,400 for couples with adjusted gross income at or below $150,000. Families with children will receive an additional $500 per child. Even Social Security beneficiaries, seniors and veterans who are not typically required to file a tax return will automatically receive this rebate the same way they receive their monthly benefit checks.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program aims to help those not traditionally eligible for unemployment insurance, such as self-employed and independent contractors as well as those who are unable to work or telework as a result of the coronavirus.

The CARES Act also provides an additional $600 per week to each unemployed worker for four months beginning April 1.

The Paycheck Protection and Loan Forgiveness Program provides federally-guaranteed, forgivable loans to small businesses, certain nonprofits, sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed workers. Businesses with 500 employees or fewer and certain franchisees are eligible for loans of 2.5 times monthly payroll, up to $10 million. More than $110 billion in small business loans were issued in the first four days of the program.

Additionally, the CARES Act authorizes direct funding to ensure our health systems and health care workers have the resources they need by providing $16 billion to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile; $45 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to procure personal protection equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies for response efforts; $4.3 billion in additional appropriations to the CDC; and $100 billion in grants to hospitals and health care providers on the front lines of the response.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have worked diligently with federal agencies as well as federal, state and local officials to secure critical resources for Kentucky.  Here is a breakdown of recent key developments.

I joined my colleagues in the Kentucky Congressional Delegation in a bipartisan effort to quickly secure the now-approved Presidential Disaster Designation for the Commonwealth. Kentucky will now have access to additional federal funds and resources through FEMA.

I have coordinated and advocated with FEMA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response to ensure Kentucky receives the medical supplies our hospitals and healthcare workers desperately need that are available from the Strategic National Stockpile. To date, Kentucky has received three shipments from the SNS.

I led a bipartisan effort with U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth to call on the FDA to cut red tape for distilleries so they can produce hand sanitizer. Our letter to the FDA has 87 members of Congress as co-signers.

I will continue to advocate for the necessary changes to bureaucratic regulations to empower Kentucky distilleries to mass produce this product during this pandemic.

I have been in regular and constant contact with our Kentucky hospital administrators, physicians’ groups, nursing homes, community bankers, small businesses and small business groups to listen to and help coordinate the federal relief response to meet their needs.

For Kentucky community businesses, my office has established a small business response team to address the concerns of our Main Street businesses and direct them to the resources provided in the CARES Act and the other legislation passed by Congress to combat COVID-19.

Throughout this difficult time, my district office stands ready to help our constituents in any way we can.

Although we have temporarily ceased in-person constituent meetings, we continue to provide assistance via phone and email.

If you need assistance with a federal agency or you have questions on any of the information above, contact my district office at 859-219-1366.

Make no mistake, we will defeat this virus and will be stronger and more resilient on the back end.

Now, we look to the future, when rapid testing, a stronger domestic medical supply chain, a sentinel surveillance system and effective therapies will allow us to reopen the economy, and we will begin in earnest the great American comeback.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr represents Kentucky’s sixth congressional district.