By Richard Cowan and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed and sent to President Donald Trump an $8.3 billion funding bill to help state and local governments combat the spreading coronavirus, as public health experts outlined efforts to rapidly accelerate testing for the disease.
By a vote of 96-1, the Senate approved legislation that was overwhelmingly passed on Wednesday by the House of Representatives.
Republican Senator Rand Paul, who objected to spending the money without first reducing federal spending elsewhere, was the lone dissenter.
Trump is expected to sign the bill into law so that the billions of dollars can flow toward developing vaccines against the highly contagious coronavirus and aiding international efforts to control transmission.
Trump initially requested $2.5 billion, with much of that coming from previously appropriated funds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said of the emergency funding bill, “It’s a serious agreement to meet a serious challenge and today we will send it to President Trump’s desk.”
Action by Congress comes as U.S. deaths related to coronavirus infections rose to 11 on Wednesday and new cases were identified on both coasts – around New York City and Los Angeles.
New York state’s confirmed coronavirus cases have doubled to 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday.
Washington state has been hardest hit so far. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell said the legislation will provide $11.5 million to help her state’s health department respond to the crisis.
“We need these funds. We need them now and we need other states to heed the early testing that would have been helpful in our state and now may be helpful in yours,” Cantwell said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that experts working for Congress have suggested ways for technology to help lawmakers and their staffs work from home or elsewhere if a coronavirus outbreak hit the city of Washington.
But, Pelosi added, “They have to be here (in the Capitol) to vote” on legislation.
The money to fight coronavirus includes over $3 billion for research and development of vaccines, test kits and medical treatments. Another $2.2 billion would aid public health activities on prevention, preparedness and response to outbreaks.
The federal government would dedicate $1.25 billion in coming weeks and months to help international efforts aimed at reining in the virus, which was first detected late last year in China and has since spread around the globe.
Earlier on Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were among administration health experts briefing House members about battling coronavirus.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, who chairs a House panel that oversees federal spending on health programs, said she did not get satisfactory answers from officials about access to testing and diagnostics and how to help people who do not get paid sick days through their jobs or who have no health insurance.
Republican Representative Tom Cole, however, gave an upbeat assessment. “We’re still behind the curve there, but the sense is we’ll be moving pretty quickly and able to catch up,” Cole said. He was referring to the growing number of tests that will be manufactured and could total around 1 million by next week.
Besides dispatching money throughout the United States, the bill approved by Congress also would provide for low-interest federal loans to businesses affected by a coronavirus outbreak.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)