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Delaware Senator Chris Coons on State Response to the Pandemic

Interview by Jordan Howell

Senator Chris Coons encourages all Americans, including civic, community, business and faith leaders, to stop fanning fear and listen to one another with respect.

Illustration by Tim Foley

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

As fear and uncertainty gripped Delaware during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and state employees struggled to contain the spread of the deadly virus. We spoke with Sen. Chris Coons at the University of Delaware STAR campus about the state and federal government’s response to the pandemic, and how Delaware avoided the worst. The senator asked the first question:

Sen. Chris Coons: Do you know there’s never been a successful vaccine for a coronavirus?

There’s real optimism for a therapeutic—a monoclonal antibody—to be artificially developed by this fall. Even if the most promising vaccine candidates aren’t proven to be both safe and effective until the third or fourth quarter next year, we may well be able to bring down the impact of infection dramatically.

DT: Do you think the Trump administration’s response—especially in the early stages—helped seed this virus and dash any hopes of keeping it under control?

CC: The federal response was chaotic and uncoordinated. Instead of having one clear national plan for sourcing and delivering PPE, for developing and delivering testing, it turned into the Hunger Games, where every state was on its own. Months of denial that this was a significant issue, and months more of being a poor role model in terms of basic public health practices, and the president’s failure to listen to scientific leaders—his response has been a model of ineptitude.

DT: How do we fix America?

CC: It’s going to take a lot of hard work by average Americans, civic leaders, community leaders, business leaders, faith leaders and activists to demonstrate a willingness to listen to one another with more respect, and not participate in sowing division and fanning fear. But a lot of that is influenced by the behavior of national leaders, and historically our American president has the bully pulpit, but it’s never been used as much as it has been by our current president to bully.

DT: Can we fix the country if Mitch McConnell is still majority leader?

CC: Mitch McConnell has been a profoundly disruptive force who has refused to work across the aisle and who has blocked critical legislative efforts. But there were several moments in the last three years where a bipartisan group of senators delivered to Donald Trump a path forward on immigration for the Dreamers and a path forward on gun violence. So the dysfunction is not just Mitch McConnell. There is a distinct difference between Donald Trump’s political populism and Mitch McConnell’s Republican conservatism. There is a temporary marriage of convenience between the two, and I don’t know what happens if Donald Trump is defeated. I don’t know what the heck Republican senators say they’ve been doing the last four years.

DT: What happens if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled?

CC: The number of Delawareans who have a pre-existing condition—whether it’s having survived a life-threatening bout of cancer or just having diabetes—-is significant. The idea of trying to provide access to quality affordable health care for all is what animated a lot of the Democrats’ work on health care for 50 years, and in 2009 and 2010 with the ACA, we largely accomplished it. The ACA has been fought over tooth and nail since it was enacted, and if we have a chance next year to simultaneously have a president and a Congress who lead a competent pandemic response by finally delivering an effective therapeutic and a safe vaccine to the entire American people—and if that allows us to re-examine how this went so badly off the rails, and what do we need in terms of a public health workforce, in terms of access to quality affordable health care, my hope is that we will finally begin to make sustainable progress towards that vision.

DT: Should a coronavirus vaccine be free, or therapeutics be free, at point of service?

CC: I believe our goal is to not charge individual patients for a vaccine.

Published as “Make America Well Again” in the December 2020 issue of Delaware Today.

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