Menendez: I Hope that People Understand the Fierce Urgency of Now

Menendez: I Hope that People Understand the Fierce Urgency of Now

Senator calls on President to Invoke Defense Production Act to combat COVID-19 giving fed gov’t broad powers to step-up national response, ramp-up production of critical supplies, ensure readiness



WASHINGTON, D.C. —Earlier today, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke on the Senate floor to reiterate his call for President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) and the authorities contained within in order to expand national production of needed medical supplies like masks, ventilators and respirators, and to expand hospital capacity to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus.  Sen. Menendez also called on the Senate to immediate pass legislation to protect families, workers, seniors and those on the front lines of this public health crisis. 

Below are the Senator’s remarks as delivered.

I want to thank the staff here in the Senate.  Even in these difficult times, they answer the call for doing the work of the American people and I appreciate them for being here so that the Senate can conduct its work.  They are essential to being able to do that and I want to acknowledge that. 

I come to the floor today as our country grapples with a global pandemic that has tragically claimed the lives of thousands of people around the world, including dozens throughout the United States and three in my home state of New Jersey.

And I come to the floor because I hope that people understand the fierce urgency of now.  This is a public health crisis and we can’t wait to act. 

The rapid spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has disrupted our daily lives; it’s destabilized our economy; it’s imposed an enormous strain on our health care system.  I think many fail to grasp the scope of this threat and the lack of a national response just as the virus began to reach America’s shores. 

But I’m not here to talk about where the Administration went wrong.  I’m here to talk about how it can start making things right. If there’s anything we learned in recent weeks it’s that you have to be proactive.  

Over the past week the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases here in the United States jumped from 1,000 to well over 4,000.  While other countries were testing thousands of people, the United States was testing mere dozens.  While other countries were staging makeshift hospitals, we were overloading ours.

And while other countries implemented aggressive social distancing measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, our government sent mixed signals to the American people about the sacrifices they must make in order to save maybe their own lives, and if not, the lives of others. 

State leaders like my own Governor Phil Murphy stepped in to fill the leadership void.  Earlier this week, he along with the Governors of New York and Connecticut announced new restrictions on restaurants, shops and other public gathering spaces.  These are tough, unquestionably.  But we need every New Jerseyan as well as every American to take federal and state recommendations about social distancing seriously.  Avoiding gatherings of more than ten people, washing your hands frequently, and if you feel sick staying home and calling your health care provider. 

We all need to be part of the solution or we can become part of the statistics.  This is the one time in which we all must come together as Americans and be part of the solution so we’re not part of the statistics.  

Already, families are feeling the impact, whether it’s lost wages and smaller paychecks, school closures, restaurant curfews or outright job losses. 

That’s why I’m calling on the Senate to act on swiftly on legislation that will provide paid leave and unemployment assistance to impacted workers, food assistance to children and seniors, and more funding for Medicaid. We cannot leave families alone to weather this storm. 

We also need to do more to help restaurants, shops, and other small businesses struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus, from mandatory curfews to supply chain shortages to decreased demand for their services. They need help. At the end of the day we need them to be able to survive the crisis in order to offer the employment necessary to revive the economy. 

But we must remember that this is first and foremost a public health crisis. The wealth of our nation ultimately depends on the health of our nation. Nothing economically will be solved without dealing with the health of the American people and we cannot ignore the demands COVID-19 will place on our health care sector and especially our hospitals in the days and weeks to come. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has projected that between 160 million and 214 million people could contract COVID-19 in the United States and between 2.4 million to 21 million of those infected could require people hospitalization. As a means of comparison, our hospital system has less than one million staffed beds, which would be inadequate even the CDC’s most optimistic projection.  

Hospitals must also have the resources and equipment available to treat the expected influx of patients. There is significant concern that the nation’s supply of mechanical respirators and ventilators is inadequate to meet the exponential need we will likely experience in the coming weeks and months.  

The latest data indicates that there may only be 62,000 hospital ventilators in the entire nation. Even if only half of those hospitalized require ventilation, our supply will be wholly inadequate to fill the demand.  

Healthcare workers also need protective gear to do their life-saving work without risking infection to themselves. Unfortunately, there have been multiple reports of shortages of personal protective equipment, even during the opening days of this outbreak. 

Failure to protect our healthcare workers and support staff, would cause a cascading effect that would cause our entire response to collapse.  Simply put, we cannot be caught underprepared. We need the federal government to step in and provide real leadership. 

In the midst of a pandemic, state and local governments should not be left on their own scrambling to buy ventilators for patients, personal protective gear for health care workers, and other critical medical supplies. 

The federal government has a tremendous obligation and opportunity to help save lives by assisting state and local governments in locating resources, using existing authorities to increase manufacturing of ventilators and other critical equipment, and preparing for the staging of temporary hospitals and beds, and more.

Let’s look at military facilities that have been closed. There’s one in my state. Let’s open them up.  Let’s construct MASH units.  Let’s not wait.  Let’s rent out hotels that are closing. These are some of the many actions that can be taken if we are decisive in our work. 

That is why I am calling on the President to immediately exercise the powers authorized by the Defense Production Act (DPA) to defend the health and safety of the American people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

While the administration’s response has so far lacked the energy this crisis has called for, invoking the powers vested in the DPA will enable to federal government to step up and take the type of aggressive steps needed in this time of uncertainty.  

It is this Act that can give the federal government the power to say we are going to become – this is my words now, in essence – we’re going to become your partner.  We want to infuse massive amounts of money to create the ventilators that we need, the personal protective gear that we need.  And if we can’t get you to produce it, we’re going to produce it.

We need to use the power of the federal government to have the type of response that this moment calls for, that this crisis calls for. That’s what government in its most significant moment is supposed to be all about.  What states cannot individually do, individual communities cannot do, it is the power of the federal government that can do it.  We must be willing to mobilize that power.   

It’s time for the United States of America live up to its history of defeating extraordinary – extraordinary -- challenges and prevailing in the face of great uncertainty.  

It is time to harness the ingenuity of our people, the might of our manufacturing base, and the wisdom of our health care experts to confront COVID-19, to protect our families and our communities, to slow the spread so we don’t overwhelm our hospitals so that we can save lives.  I’ve seen some of the projections.  I hope to God they’re wrong.  But we will lose many people unless we all take this seriously and unless we act.

This is a moment for action and to and to show the world once again that there’s no challenge is too great for the American people.