Exclusive – Sen. Pat Toomey Calls for Reopening America Faster: ‘Danger’ of Coronavirus to Most Americans Overstated

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks speaks with members of the media at the Monroe Energy Trainer Refinery in Trainer, Pa., Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview on Friday that American political leaders are “overstating the danger” of coronavirus to most Americans while “underestimating” the economic “carnage” that lockdowns nationwide are causing.

Toomey, a key U.S. senator from a Rust Belt battleground state, conducted this interview with Breitbart News after rolling out a plan to much more quickly reopen Pennsylvania than the plan the state’s Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf has begun. Toomey, a widely respected Republican who serves alongside a Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), is not known for making outlandish claims so his statements here that the panic driving policy decisions around the country instead of science—which shows the disease is much less severe than originally thought—are a huge step for the country as the conventional wisdom behind the lockdowns nationwide is challenged ever so more. He is the first U.S. senator to offer such criticism of the conventional wisdom that keeps much of the country—and much of Pennsylvania—in a state of perpetual pseudo-lockdown limbo. Toomey in recent days hosted a roundtable with medical and economic experts presenting for U.S. senators actual data about the virus, bringing together top medical and scientific officials from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)—Pennsylvania’s largest hospital system—and Stanford University, Duke University, and New York University.

“Let me start with my starting premise and that is there was a very specific reason why we shut down our economy,” Toomey told Breitbart News on Friday. “Think about how drastic and draconian a step that was. It was completely unprecedented in American history to just forbid economic activity. We did it for one reason. That was to slow down the rate of the transmission of the virus, not to stop it altogether—nobody thought that was possible, but to slow it down so that we wouldn’t have such a rapid surge of sick people that they would overwhelm our hospitals’ capacity to treat them. That was the reason. It is now absolutely clear that there is no danger of overwhelming our hospitals. In fact, the vast majority of hospitals in Pennsylvania are mostly empty. UPMC is the biggest hospital system in all of Pennsylvania, and one of the bigger systems in the country. They have 5,500 hospital beds. They have 40 COVID patients. So, there is no chance of overwhelming the hospitals. Therefore, since the whole reason of depriving everyone in Pennsylvania of an income and a livelihood is no longer a risk, why are we still doing it?”

Toomey’s state of Pennsylvania has begun, under Democrat Gov. Wolf’s plan, a long, slow reopening process as of Friday. On Friday morning, Wolf rolled back restrictions in about a third of the state—in 24 counties total—mostly in the northwestern rural part of the state. Wolf’s reopening plan has three color-coded phases. The lockdown phase, where most of the state remains, is the red phase. The first phase of reopening is yellow, and then eventually certain counties will move to green after some time in the yellow phase. Toomey told Breitbart News that Wolf’s plan does not move fast enough, and that he believes the science supports safely reopening the vast majority of Pennsylvania right now.

“We need to get on with the business of reopening our economy,” Toomey said. “Here’s another very important factor in all of this, it’s now increasingly obvious what was not entirely obvious when this outbreak began and that is this is a disease of the elderly and the ill. In Pennsylvania, 68 percent of all fatalities have happened inside nursing homes. So it’s the most vulnerable subset of the most vulnerable subset—in other words, the nursing home residents of the elderly population, those are the ones who are extremely vulnerable. By all means, we should be doing everything we can to protect them. But the vast majority of people are not vulnerable. So I’ve advocated a phased reopening of our economy. I think that actually most of Pennsylvania, a large majority of Pennsylvania, could be substantially reopened. We’re not moving as quickly as we should and could and need to to allow people to restore their livelihoods.”

Toomey said that scientifically the virus has not been even close to what many doom-predicting experts had feared would be the worst case scenario. He said that while it clearly poses a high risk for elderly and vulnerable communities, especially for people in nursing homes, he believes U.S. policymakers have not effectively balanced the science—especially as new information, data, and facts have changed the way doctors are looking at the bigger picture—with economic impact.

“I think that’s hard to say and I don’t want to speak for him,” Toomey said when asked if Wolf is denying the scientific data that is informing his push to reopen Pennsylvania faster. “The science is an essential ingredient in our decision-making, in our input, but it doesn’t have the answer. The question that we’re posing is how do we weigh these tradeoffs between a maybe slightly lower rate of infection that’s going to happen anyway if we stay locked down versus all the carnage we’re doing by virtue of staying locked down including increases in diseases of despair like depression and alcohol and drug abuse and suicide that comes from people who have lost their livelihoods and lost their prospects of getting a job? How about all the businesses who are failing and will never come back? Medical science doesn’t have an opinion about how you weigh those things. But for elected officeholders, that’s our job—to weigh these competing claims or demands or interests and try to make a judgment about how to go forward. I think we are not making a good judgment about that right now, because we’re overstating the danger of the virus—that’s not to minimize it. Obviously, it’s lethal for people who are vulnerable to it. But it’s not lethal to everyone and in fact it’s not lethal to the vast majority of people. The danger is we’re overstating the risks of that, and we’re underestimating the damage that’s being done by a closed economy and I’m trying to strike what I think is an appropriate balance.”

On that note, regarding the lethality of coronavirus for the elderly in nursing homes, Toomey has put forward a bipartisan op-ed with his state’s Democrat Sen. Casey to aim to reduce nursing home deaths.

Toomey is correct that the virus has not met expectations of the worst of much of the scientific community’s original projections. Modelers from Imperial College U.K. to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington—and more—have been consistently wrong throughout the process. IHME has even changed its models repeatedly. But perhaps most importantly, as Toomey’s roundtable with the doctors about the science of this disease showed in particular with regard to the greater Pittsburgh area, the data from reality shows that most of the predictions were wrong.

During that roundtable, Dr. Steven Shapiro, the executive vice president and chief medical and scientific officer for UPMC, laid out how a “surge” of COVID-19 patients never came to the state of Pennsylvania.

“As we prepared for the pandemic, we radically transformed our hospital operations to create a safe environment for patients and staff, we delayed non-urgent surgery, reducing it by 70%, and we scaled up telemedicine 38-fold, performing 250,000 visits in April,” Dr. Shapiro said of UPMC’s COVID-19 preparations in a release about Toomey’s roundtable. “We indeed saw a steady stream of patients but never ‘surged.’ At peak in mid-April, COVID-19 patients occupied 2% of our 5,500 hospital beds and 48 of our 750 ventilators. Subsequently, admissions have been decreasing with very few patients now coming from the community, almost all now being from nursing homes. Of note, in the 36 UPMC-owned senior facilities we have had zero positive cases.”

Also during the roundtable, Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford University—a world-renowned epidemiologist—laid out how the science demonstrates that many more people than thought have been infected with COVID-19, which means the mortality rate and risk to the broader population is significantly less than originally predicted. Dr. Ioannidis cited a number of serology surveys that show much broader swaths of the population had COVID-19 and did not even know it, which means the disease is far less deadly than some had originally thought.

Toomey told Breitbart News he is of the belief that when making decisions that are so impactful on people’s lives, lawmakers should have all these facts and views—rather than selectively cherry-picking ones that fit their worldview. While Toomey invited his Democrat colleagues in the U.S. Senate to participate in the roundtable to get advice and information from the scientists and medical and economic experts, only Republican senators ended up joining him.

“In the end it was only Republicans,” Toomey said. “We had Dr. Romer, who’s a Nobel-winning economist. We had Dr. Ioannidis. We had Dr. Shapiro who is in a senior position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a practicing medical doctor and also administers a very substantial part of their portfolio. So you’re right, these four scientists, these four professionals and we ought to be listening to a wide range of opinions. Dr. Ioannidis, he made some very interesting observations. He said we are over counting the number of COVID deaths and he had a very cogent explanation for why that’s likely to be the case. He also believes that we are probably dramatically underestimating the number of people who have been infected. But so many people are infected and are asymptomatic you’d never know they were infected. That’s actually very good news because it suggests that the lethality of this virus is very much less than we’ve been thinking. Not all doctors share his views, but he is an eminently qualified trained professional universally cited in epidemiological studies. We ought to be listening to what he has to say also. So that was part of my purpose, let’s have this discussion. I thought it was a very constructive conversation, and it also points in the direction that we ought to be in the process of reopening.”

WATCH THE WHOLE ROUNDTABLE HERE FROM SEN. TOOMEY’S YOUTUBE PAGE:

Toomey also is one of if not the only member of Congress who has released a plan to reopen his or her state’s economy, and his plan would open Pennsylvania much more quickly than Wolf’s plan is doing. He thinks that in some places, members of Congress will start following his lead and challenging their governors to be more responsive to the emerging science demonstrating that it is safe to reopen their economies.

“I think it really varies state by state,” Toomey said when asked if he expects others in Congress to follow his idea of offering a counter-plan to the governor’s plan. “There’s states that have had virtually no impact at all from the coronavirus and other states have been hit hard and governors have responded very differently. I would say it really depends on the state.”

In the case of Pennsylvania, particularly, Toomey also noted that Wolf had no plan before Toomey developed and was rolling his out all the way back in mid-April—and that the news of his then-forthcoming plan forced Wolf’s hand into moving to reopen some of the state from the perpetual lockdown. As such, while Wolf did ease restrictions in some of Pennsylvania on Friday, this week he also extended the lockdown in other parts of the state all the way out until early June—something Toomey says makes not much sense as he believes most of Pennsylvania is ready to reopen now and all of it should be ready sooner than Wolf is saying.

“In my case, I began working on my plan because the governor had not released one. There was no plan,” Toomey said. “And, I completed my plan and announced that I would be releasing it the next day, and that afternoon that we started lining up the press conference for the following day the governor then announced a press conference that night and he then released a plan. Well, okay, that’s good and that’s progress. But part of the impetus of my doing a plan is because Pennsylvania did not have one. Then the reason I’ve continued to weigh in on this is I think our governor’s plan moves just way too slowly. Look, as you know, having never been through this before, there’s no plan on the shelf. Nobody ever contemplated the government shutting down our economy. It’s just so bizarre and so unprecedented. So there’s no plan for how you restore the economy. I think it’s something we’ve got to have a vigorous debate about, and I feel like I have a point of view and I have an opportunity to get input from a tremendous wide range of really valuable sources all over Pennsylvania and beyond and so I’ve got a responsibility to lay out a vision, a process, a mechanism by which we restore our ability to have a livelihood.”

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