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Amid Senate coronavirus revelations, Ohio members show no interest in investigating - News - The Columbus Dispatch


Did members of the U.S. Senate have advance information about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak that they waited to share with the public? Did some use that information to sell their stocks in advance of a stock market collapse?

Those questions are swirling right now, but Ohio’s senators don’t seem much interested in investigating them.

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Experts have said a lack of urgency as the COVID-19 virus took hold in China has exacerbated shortages of vital equipment as hospitals brace for a spike in life-threatening infections.

It appears that at least some elected officials should have known better.

On Feb. 27, in a closed meeting with an elite group of North Carolinians, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee delivered a a dire warning about coronavirus, according to an explosive recording obtained last week by National Public Radio.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, told the group of business and nonprofit leaders that it would be a once-in-a-century pandemic. That was weeks before he or any other government leaders told the general public how ominous the nation’s top experts anticipated the pandemic would be.

“It’s much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history,” Burr said. “It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

Burr and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democratic vice chair on the Intelligence Committee, were getting daily briefings on the coronavirus outbreak from U.S. intelligence agencies, Reuters reported the same day Burr delivered his dire, private warning.

Those same agencies brief President Donald Trump and top administration officials. But the same day Burr was comparing the pandemic to one that killed between 50 million and 100 million worldwide, Trump was again minimizing it.

“It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear from our shores,” Trump said. “It could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see.”

Now Burr, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., are the subject of complaints by the watchdog group Common Cause after they sold off stock in the weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak slammed into the stock market, greatly devaluing shares the senators no longer owned.

Leoffler dumped between hundreds of thousands of and millions of dollars worth of stock on Jan. 25 – the same day that the Senate Health Committee, on which she sits, hosted an all-senators briefing by the administration’s top infectious-disease experts.

John M. Barry, a historian of the 1918 influenza pandemic, last week wrote that the disease was made much worse in places where officials failed to level with the public. That history provides lessons for today, he added.

“Compliance today has been made vastly more difficult by the White House, echoed by right-wing media, minimizing the seriousness of this threat,” Barry wrote.

The offices of Ohio Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, last week wouldn’t answer directly when asked repeatedly whether Congress should investigate what experts told senators and the president about the epidemic and whether they timely shared that information with the public.

Neither senator has disclosed any reportable financial transactions since the beginning of December, according to a Senate ethics database. But they also wouldn’t answer directly when asked if investigations should be conducted into colleagues who did.

Portman’s office acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 24 health briefing, but his office wouldn’t say what he was told.

“Rob has attended many briefings on the coronavirus and they continue to inform his work with the administration and (Ohio) Gov. (Mike) DeWine to support Ohio families and businesses impacted by this crisis,” spokeswoman Emmallee Kalmbach said in an email.

Kalmbach also didn’t answer directly when asked whether Portman avoided dire public statements about the coronavirus to avoid antagonizing Trump, who was playing down the threat. Portman has steadfastly refused to criticize Trump’s response to the outbreak.

Brown’s office said that he didn’t attend the Jan. 24 meeting. Asked about when the senator learned about the anticipated severity of the disease and when he publicly shared that information, a spokesman said on background that Brown passed along the information when he learned it.

“While he doesn’t know the details of the conversations of Sen. Burr or any other senator, Sen. Brown has been speaking out and taking action to help keep Ohioans healthy and safe since initial concerns about COVID-19 were first raised,” the spokesman said.

“Senator Brown raised public health concerns, including coronavirus, in February when pressing (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Alex) Azar on cuts to Medicaid.”

A spokeswoman for Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, also wouldn’t answer directly when asked if Congress should investigate what members and Trump knew about coronavirus, when they knew it and what they did with that information.

The spokeswoman, Rachel Cohen, referred questions to Burr’s office, which didn’t respond. Cohen said it was unfair to assume that the dire warning Burr gave privately on Feb. 27 came from intelligence briefings.

“Chairman Burr has been a national leader on issues of pandemic(s) and biopreparedness for years,” she said in an email. “Nothing I heard in this story wouldn’t have been clear to anyone with knowledge of these issues who was closely tracking the public reporting of Western news organizations out of Wuhan (China).”

However, a Disptach review of news clips during that period doesn’t bear that out. During the last week of February, major news outlets were debating whether COVID-19 even was a pandemic. No stories found by the paper said it might be the worst in more than a century.

It wasn’t until March 11 that the world World Health Organization designated COVID-19 a pandemic.

Dispatch Librarian Julie Fulton contributed to this story.

mschladen@dispatch.com

@martyschladen

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