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Cole Op-Ed in WSJ: Thanks to Congress, America Is Prepared for the Coronavirus

January 31, 2020
Weekly Columns

The following op-ed written by Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04) was originally published online and in the print edition of the The Wall Street Journal.

The world watches with concern as the virus originating in Wuhan affects more nations. While it’s still too soon to know if this coronavirus strain will become a pandemic, Americans should take some comfort: Thanks to the bipartisan foresight of Congress and lessons learned in the past five years, the U.S. is in better shape today than at any other time in recent memory to confront a major public-health crisis.

In the past decade, our dedicated public-health defenders have been on the front lines, responding to disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika. Congress boosted funding for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Strategic National Stockpile of medications and other medical supplies. It’s notable that Congress passed these increases each year despite the lower funding levels recommended by presidents of both parties.

Many of the methods now being used to prevent the coronavirus from spreading exist because Congress anticipated that the federal government would need to respond quickly to infectious diseases. When Republicans led the House in 2018, we established the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund. The CDC can use this funding at a moment’s notice to support doctors and other health workers deployed to fight outbreaks. I was proud to advocate the creation of this fund during my tenure as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Department of Health and Human Services.

Two years after I proposed the fund, Congress approved and funded it with $50 million. Unspent money accumulates over time, ready for emergencies. The CDC expects to use $30 million for its continuing Ebola response in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which began last year.

Since its creation, the fund’s support has only increased, despite today’s divided Congress. The House and Senate approved an additional $85 million for the current fiscal year, which President Trump signed into law in December. As a result, more than $100 million is immediately available to support the CDC’s global response efforts and prevent further contagion of the coronavirus in the U.S.

Disease outbreaks can threaten American lives anywhere in the world, and we’re all safer when the CDC can respond to them immediately. As our world becomes more interconnected, the spread of new infectious diseases occurs more frequently. A standing reserve fund is proving to be a wise investment.

Commentators delight in portraying legislators as incapable of working together across party lines, but bipartisanship and institutional foresight have made the nation more prepared to deal with an outbreak like the coronavirus than we were even five years ago. While it’s unclear whether the available funding will be sufficient to respond to the entirety of the coronavirus challenge, at least our public-health defenders won’t be slowed down in these critical first days. If they need more funding, I’m confident that Congress will move quickly to provide the resources.

Mr. Cole, a Republican, represents Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District and is ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.