U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on Thursday largely praised President Donald Trump’s recent response to the coronavirus while disagreeing with his administration’s decision to not re-open enrollment in health care plans under the Affordable Care Act.
The Republican senator discussed the federal government’s response to the coronavirus on Thursday with the Bangor Daily News, including the upcoming rollout of federal loans for small businesses and how infrastructure could be a focus of another stimulus. She again refused to say if she voted for Trump in his unopposed Republican primary in Maine.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
BDN: You championed the part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus-focused stimulus package that will provide $350 billion in loans to small businesses that will be forgiven if they keep employees on payroll for eight weeks. What can be done to make sure this program launches in an orderly fashion and, given another week of record-setting unemployment figures, do you think it will be enough?
Collins: Just this morning, I had a conference call with [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] in which we discussed the rollout of the paycheck protection program that I co-authored. There were some issues that Maine community bankers had raised with me in a telephone call earlier this week and that small businesspeople and the hospitality industry had raised, and I am cautiously optimistic that we’ve gotten those issues resolved.
[Mnuchin] told me that he felt that Small Business Administration-approved lenders could be ready to start accepting applications from small businesses as soon as tomorrow and that for individuals who are self-employed, it would be a week from tomorrow.
BDN: There have been discussions about potentially another stimulus package. President Trump and House Democrats have talked about a infrastructure plan, but some Senate Republicans seem to be weary of massive spending after the massive spending in this previous bill. What are your goals for a future package?
Collins: We have to watch very closely the trajectory of this pandemic and our first concern has to be the health of all of our people. Our second concern has to be getting the economy up and running again and preventing economic devastation as the numbers for unemployment claims show.
I talked also this morning to [Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] Dr. [Anthony] Fauci on a conference call, and one of the questions that was asked of him was how will we know when we reach the peak of this epidemic? And he said that the most important measure is when the number of new cases per day start going down.
Sadly, there will still be an increase in deaths after that occurs. But from his perspective, the most important metric as far as when we turned the corner on this virus is when the cases per day start declining. So I think how quickly that occurs will determine what Congress does next and whether there is a fourth bill to respond to this pandemic.
The first two bills focused primarily on health care issues as well. They should. The third bill focused mainly on preventing economic devastation and also included funding for our hard-hit hospitals and health care providers. The fourth bill, I believe, would focus on both health care concerns and the economy, and one way to spur the economy would be an infrastructure package.
BDN: Hospitals in Maine could be overwhelmed by the virus soon. This week, you joined the Maine delegation to call on the Trump administration to release more protective equipment from the national stockpile. Florida has gotten what it requested with one administration official insinuating to The Washington Post that it was for electoral reasons. Maine has not gotten what it requested. What do you know about the allocations and what can be done about it?
Collins: I’m very glad you asked about that because the data show that that is just not the case. There has been a widely quoted statistic that Maine got only 5 percent of its requests and Florida got 100 percent of its requests. The fact is that Maine requested far more masks than Florida did. When you look at the number of masks that had been sent out in three different shipments from the national stockpile, 86,000 masks have been sent to the state of Maine and that is one mask for every 15 Mainers. In Florida, the number of masks is 540,000, but that equates to only one out of every 40 [Floridians] receiving or having masks. So the masks are generally allocated on a per-capita basis.
I asked Dr. Fauci this morning whether the stockpile was pretty much depleted, and he said that it is, and that he would expect it to be at this point in the pandemic, that the federal government should not be holding back supplies. I’m very proud of two Maine companies, L.L. Bean and New Balance, that are converting factories to produce masks rather than footwear, and I think that shows the ingenuity of Maine employers and the fact that they’ve really stepped up to help fill this gap.
BDN: Last month, you said you wanted President Trump to “step back” from the public response to the virus. The president has made some comments over the past couple of months that downplayed the virus or were factually incorrect. For example, he said that in February cases in the U.S. were declining and then later that anyone who wanted a test could get one. Did some of his public comments contradict what you were hearing in private briefings at the time? Do you think that misinformation coming from the White House has caused real harm?
Collins: First let me say that I was among many who advised the president to listen more closely to the excellent medical advisers that he has like Dr. Fauci and like Dr. Deborah Birx [the White House coronavirus response coordinator], and he has been doing that lately. And I think his daily press briefings have been far more helpful to the American people and that he has deferred in many cases to the experts who usually accompany him to those press briefings.
In the beginning he was not involving the medical experts to the point that he should have. But now he is, and I think what we’ve seen is far more helpful and accurate information being disseminated.
BDN: I know you said that the president’s briefings have been better, and he’s been listening to the experts more, but what about before, when he wasn’t listening to the experts, do you think that that caused lasting harm to the country’s response?
Collins: It may have given some people a false sense of security, but the president did a lot that was right in the beginning. For example, he acted very early to ban travel to China, and that was a move, an action that he took that undoubtedly saved lives. I think in the beginning there were times when he was speaking about what he hoped would happen rather than relying on the data and information of his experts. That has changed, and I’m glad that it has.
BDN: Last month, you declined to say whether you supported the president in his unopposed Maine primary. Did you vote for him then, and has your opinion of his overall performance changed since?
Collins: We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and that’s what I’ve been working literally night and day on. I have paused my own campaign so that I could focus on the pandemic and on the very major legislation that I authored to help our laid-off employees of small businesses, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m not going to get involved. I know there’s still a lot of negative ads running against me, but you will notice that I am not running traditional campaign ads. I am trying to use my time and resources to educate people about what Congress is doing and to pass on helpful sources of information to them. So I’m just not going to engage in political discussions at this point. I don’t mean to be difficult, I just don’t think it’s appropriate at a time when we are facing the most serious health crisis since the 1918 Spanish flu.
BDN: The Trump administration decided not to reopen health care enrollment for uninsured Americans under the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Angus King has criticized this decision saying that the government should be doing more to help people access health insurance. What are your thoughts?
Collins: I agree with Sen. King on this issue. I think that the enrollment period should have been reopened. One of the reasons that I pushed the paycheck protection program so hard is that if we can keep people on their regular payroll, many more people will continue to receive their health insurance. There will still be some who lose their health insurance or have difficulty affording it and may want to go on the Affordable Care Act, which has generous subsidies for lower income individuals. So I think reopening the enrollment period makes a lot of sense. And I’m disappointed that the president is not doing that.
BDN: Before you go, is there any advice or message that you would just give to Maine people right now?
Collins: I would tell them that we are resilient. Mainers pulled together in times like this. I know how frustrating it is that Mainers cannot in some cases check on their loved ones too, maybe in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. But I would encourage them to call them to send the emails if they’re able to do so and to safely check on their neighbors.
Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19