With the COVID-19 coronavirus continuing to spread in the continental United States, the U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to approve $8.3 billion of funds to battle the problem.
While there are still zero confirmed cases in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the Associated Press one case has been confirmed in the Dominican Republic and three in Guadeloupe as of Tuesday. (Other reports indicate the three are from St. Barts, are in the hospital on St. Martin and were reported to the French government via Guadeloupe.)
In a news release issued Wednesday, Delegate Stacey Plaskett said the coronavirus bill includes $2.2 billion for prevention, preparedness and response “including nearly a billion dollars specifically to alleviate the immense financial strain on state, local, tribal and territorial hospitals and health systems.”
To protect public health, the bill will allow Medicare providers to extend telemedicine services to seniors regardless of where they live, at an estimated cost of $500 million. The bill also allows an estimated $7 billion in low-interest Small Business Administration loans to small businesses affected by the epidemic.
“This funding commits more than $3 billion to the development of treatments and a coronavirus vaccine and includes an additional $300 million to ensure Americans will have access to the vaccine regardless of their ability to pay,” Plaskett said.
Echoing a similar release from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Plaskett said the legislation protects against price-gouging of these medicines developed with taxpayer dollars by ensuring that the federal government will only pay a fair and reasonable price for coronavirus vaccines and drugs and providing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the authority to ensure that they are affordable in the commercial market.
Before funds are actually available, the Senate must pass the legislation and President Donald Trump will have to sign it. According to a release from the offices of Sens. Tim Kaine and John Warner of Virginia, the Senate is expected to vote on it by the end of the week. Reports in multiple outlets suggest the Senate is likely to approve it without much change.
The $8.3 billion is far more than the $1.25 million proposed by the Trump administration in late February. The administration proposed $2.5 million with half of the funds diverted from other health programs.
While health and safety are paramount concerns, even if the virus never hits the shores of the USVI, there may be local economic impact. The territory is highly dependent on tourism and is a major cruise destination. Cruise stocks have plummeted and at least three cruise ships have been turned away from ports in the Caribbean over concerns about the virus.
Three Virgin Islanders have been tested for the virus, after displaying flu-like symptoms and testing negative for influenza. While they are under observation, there are no confirmed cases in the territory and the number of people being tested is likely to rise whether or not the virus has arrived.
Those who have flu-like symptoms, especially with upper respiratory issues, should consider getting tested. Health officials suggested calling ahead before going to see a doctor or emergency room and tell them your symptoms and where you have traveled.
Virgin Islanders can report a suspected case by calling the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Division at 340-718-1311 ext. 3891 or 340-774-7477 ext. 5647.