BROWNSVILLE – With nearly 10,000 South Texans listening in, Ron Klain, the former Ebola czar for President Barack Obama, held back no punches in ripping into the federal government during a telephone town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville).
Klain, who was the chief of staff for both Joe Biden and Al Gore, dominated the first 20 minutes of the town hall with his thoughts on the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vela had five panelists on the telephone town hall, which was the third hosted by the congressman since the pandemic first reached the United States.
Klain was the lone speaker for the first 20 minutes of the meeting, save some brief comments from another panelist, renowned epidemiologist Dr. Joseph McCormick, who also ripped into the federal government, saying, “the political arm of the government has basically ignored the advice of the best science we have, particularly, epidemiologic science, population science.”
Vela first opened the meeting with a welcome that included a story about his experience with COVID-19.
“When I left South Texas (in late June to go to Washington, D.C.), I knew of no one back in the Rio Grande Valley who had coronavirus,” the congressman said. “... In the last three weeks, I am personally connected to three people who have passed away and over 50 to 60 people who are infected.”
He then turned the floor over to Klain by asking him to compare the federal government’s response to Ebola to the response to COVID-19.
Klain lauded Obama’s forward-thinking approach to Ebola, then ripped into the current administration’s handling of the COVID-19 threat.
“I think if you see what is happening with COVID, we’re seeing a very, very different circumstance,” he said comparing the responses. “I do agree that COVID is certainly a much more comprehensive, much more difficult to manage than Ebola.”
“... But even though it’s a more difficult challenge, still, I think it’s right to expect our federal government do better than it has.”
The lackluster response, Klain said, is why the disease is so rapidly spreading now.
“We don’t really have a national strategy for testing. We don’t have a national strategy for contact tracing the people who test positive to see who they’ve been in touch with and who they might have infected. We don’t have a national strategy for getting protective gear to our frontline workers,” he said.
“And because we lack all those national strategies, we’re seeing the disease spread in more places.”
Klain said Vela’s story about his experience with the coronavirus is proof positive that the federal government has failed its people.
“Your experience, congressman, of not knowing anyone personally in your district with the disease just a few weeks ago and now knowing dozens and dozens of cases and sadly a few fatalities is an experience that didn’t have to happen,” he said.
“Our government has failed to respond adequately to this challenge that we’re facing.”
McCormick took the floor after that, opening with his shot at the government about the politicization of the pandemic before saying there’s still hope to get the spread of the disease under control with science-driven decisions.
Vela put Klain at the center of the town hall again by asking him what he would have said if President Donald Trump asked him how the government should handle pandemic.
“I would have said to the president, ‘We need to put science first. We need to have the strategy for fighting the disease coming from the leading scientific experts,’” Klain said.
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez then was the first caller to pose a question on the call, asking Klain how the country should balance health and safety against the need to once again have a healthy economy.
“The only way to help small businesses is to beat the disease,” Klain said in response. “... The health-care strategy is the economic strategy, and success in the health-care strategy is success in the economic strategy.”
The final 40 minutes of the town hall was highlighted by information presented by Israel Rocha, a Valley native who is currently the CEO at NYC Health & Hospitals/Elmhurst, as well as RGV-specific information presented by Dr. Art Garza, the CEO of Valley Regional Medical Center.
Kevin J. Keller is the sports editor at the Bee-Picayune and the Advance-Guard and can be reached at 343-5223, or at sports@MySouTex.com, or follow him on Twitter, @beegoliadsports.