‘Outrageous:’ Senate Dems Block Bill to Address Shortage of Respirators, Face Masks amid Coronavirus

EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images
EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Democrats on Thursday obstructed the passage of bipartisan legislation that would save lives amid the novel coronavirus outbreak plaguing the U.S. by increasing access to “vitally-needed respirators,” Republicans said.

The bill would also “create certainty for mask manufacturers,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) noted via Twitter on Thursday. Stores across the United States are reportedly selling out of face masks and other personal care products.

Echoing comments made on Twitter in a statement issued Thursday, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), one of the bill’s sponsors, declared:

The Senate had an opportunity to act quickly and pass my bipartisan bill to address the shortage of respirators facing our country during this coronavirus outbreak. As a result of the objection from Senate Democrats, the health and safety of our health care providers and first responders is at risk. I will continue to seek a way forward for this critical legislation.

The bill, introduced last week by Sens. Fischer and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), would amend the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act to address a shortage of respirators, the Nebraska Republican’s office explained.

“I’m on the floor now speaking on my bipartisan bill with [Sen. Sinema]. Our health care workers & first responders tell us they lack respirators. We must ensure they have access to the equipment they need to combat [coronavirus or COVID-19] cases,” Fischer wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Democrats in the Senate, however, blocked the bipartisan legislation.

“[Fischer’s] bipartisan PREP Act would expand medical professionals’ access to vitally-needed respirators and create certainty for mask manufacturers,” McConnell wrote on Twitter Thursday. “It is not controversial. The Senate could have passed it today. But Senate Democrats refused to let it move forward.”

“Outrageous,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wrote on Twitter Thursday in response to the Democrats move. “[Sen. Fischer’s] bill will save lives.”

After the Democrats blocker her bill, Fischer vowed to “continue looking for a way forward for this critical legislation to keep our people safe.”

Fischer’s office noted that the bipartisan bill would ensure that all respirators certified by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “are eligible for the same federal liability protections as other medical products, vaccines, and drugs,” adding:

Current law, via the PREP Act, allows the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue a declaration granting limited liability protection to manufacturers and distributors of certain countermeasures against diseases—which includes respirators—when the government calls up that equipment to be used in the event of an outbreak or epidemic. During these times, liability is taken on by the federal government. However, respirators which are overseen by NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health]—an office within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—are not currently eligible for that protection.

Sens. Fischer and Sinema are members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, which has jurisdiction over the manufacturing of respirators and masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

According to WHO, there were 125,048 confirmed cases and 4,613 fatalities worldwide as of early on Thursday.

In the U.S., the CDC said there were a total of 1,629 cases and 41 deaths across 46 states and Washington, DC, as of Thursday, with the vast majority (1,362) of cases still under investigation. The rest are travel-related (138) and the result of close-contact (129).

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