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Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy On The U.S. Coronavirus Response


Mark your calendars. This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is having a hearing. Now, it's not often Senate committee hearings are must-see TV, granted, but this one is titled "COVID-19: Safely Getting Back To Work And Back To School." And I think we can all agree that that has some appeal, and it will have an all-star cast. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy is a member of the HELP Committee. He's also a doctor, and he joins us now.

Senator, welcome to the program.

BILL CASSIDY: Hey, Lulu. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Admiral Giroir from HHS is on the schedule for Tuesday. Also, CDC director Robert Redfield and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, who are in self-quarantine, will be there, too, and Anthony Fauci, who's in modified quarantine after several positive tests in the White House. As the title for the hearing advertises - safely getting back to work - well, the White House is one of the most secure workplaces in the world. What does it say to you and to workers around the country that, for all the testing and other protections afforded the people there, this virus is still knocking at the White House door?

CASSIDY: It shows that you obviously have to have ways in which you track employees, both to make - to find out which of these are not - you know, those who are at most risk and those who are at greater risk. In any work environment, you have to adapt your working procedures. Also, for children - clearly, the children are at low risk for complications and high risk for asymptomatically carrying the disease and spreading it to teachers. So there has to be what I call and if-and-then-but strategy. If they're a child, then they're likely safe, but they - if they get infected, they can still infect the teacher. So therefore, take precautions. So I just think we need a sophisticated strategy by which we pursue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well - then how would you rate the U.S. response so far? You are a doctor, and yet we are leading with the number of infections and deaths. Many attribute that to a lack of a consistent message coming from leaders, including at the White House. I mean, what you've just described apparently hasn't been done at the White House.

CASSIDY: I can't speak of what's happening at the White House. I frankly don't follow it. I've just got so much on my plate. But what I will say is that I do think that, with the testing we have, if we match it with the need, then we can have an appropriate response. And so, for example, going to school systems - which I'm thinking deeply about because schools for children - they are paying the highest price relative to their risk of having a complication from coronavirus - the highest price - particularly kids from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom that enriched environment is important, particularly kids from potentially abusive households where teachers are often those that report abuse. I could go down the list.

So we have to find a way to match our testing capacity, which is adequate for this, with where people are beginning to congregate once more, both to screen those who are positive but to protect those who are negative. I think we have adequate capacity for that, and I hope that's what we begin to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, if officials at Tuesday's hearing say something - a definite is required to safely open schools and businesses - a certain amount of testing, an established program of contact tracing - benchmarks - will you take that as the final word?

CASSIDY: No. The final word has to be implementation. It's one thing to have high principles. They're very important. Next, the application of those principles - but you actually have to do it. You have to do it. So for example, I'm thinking about how to reopen the school where you would want to screen everybody - faculty, staff, students at baseline. Those who are negative can come in. You'd also like to check antibody - antibodies because it's - the science is pointing that antibodies will be protective. And then you screen on a periodic basis.

But you don't stop there. Those who are positive on subsequent testing - you would then employ contact tracing to take them back to their house or their neighborhood. That would be true of the student, the staff and the teacher. Now, we can actually reopen but use the need to reopen as an opportunity to contact trace. So I think, ultimately, if we apply this in a granular level, we will have accomplished what we need to accomplish.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, your colleague in the Senate, is reported to have said that COVID is a disease of the elderly and the ill and that the vast majority of people are not vulnerable. And he wants to see his state open much faster than his governor is going. That just seems confusing compared to what you're saying, which is that we need a robust contact tracing, that we need targeted testing, something that most states, including Pennsylvania, haven't been doing yet.

CASSIDY: There is actually a consistency there. Dr. Shapiro testified at a hearing that Pat Toomey hosted. He spoke about how, in western Pennsylvania, the prevalence or the incidence of coronavirus is very low. They checked a thousand people. All 1,000 have been negative. And so if you know that in your area that the incidence is low, then you are more freely opening your society - more speedily opening. If you know that incidence in your community is higher, then you've got - even your micro-community 'cause it can spread from a so-called micro-community - then you need to do vigorous contact tracing. That's my point. We must match the testing with the strategy based upon the incidence of infection within the community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.

Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us this Sunday.

CASSIDY: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.