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The Coronavirus May Provide the Best Argument for Medicare for All

The death toll from coronavirus has reached 11 in the United States.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package for combating coronavirus, as the death toll from coronavirus has reached 11 in the United States. California recorded its first coronavirus death yesterday. The virus has also spread to New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive requiring health insurers to waive cost sharing for coronavirus tests. We go to two ground zeroes of the COVID-19 outbreak — New York and Seattle — and host a roundtable on whether coronavirus presents a clear argument for healthcare for all. We are joined by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a primary care physician and the co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program; New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester, where four people have been diagnosed with coronavirus; Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society of New York and co-founder of the Health Care for All New York campaign; and Kshama Sawant, socialist city councilmember in Seattle, where a ninth person has died from the virus.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: The World Health Organization is warning the number of cases of COVID-19, caused by coronavirus, is approaching 100,000 worldwide, with more than 3,100 deaths due to the illness. Most of the deaths and infections have occurred in China, where health officials reported 139 new cases and 31 new deaths Wednesday. South Korea confirmed 438 new cases and three additional deaths, also on Wednesday. More than 5,700 cases have been found in the country. In Italy, where over 3,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 100 deaths reported, officials have closed down schools nationwide until at least March 15th. Schools have also been closed in South Korea, Japan, France, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, with nearly 300 million children kept home from schools worldwide.

In the United States, the death toll has reached 11, with 10 of the deaths occurring in Washington state. On Wednesday, California recorded its first coronavirus death: an elderly man who traveled on a Princess cruise ship that departed from San Francisco and traveled to Mexico in February. Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered the ship quarantined off the coast of California and is airlifting tests for passengers and crew. Governor Newsom made the announcement as he formally declared a state of emergency across California.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: I want to just acknowledge that with 53 tested cases positive, this is no longer isolated in just one part of our state. This is broadly shared as a burden and responsibility up and down the state.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The World Health Organization said Tuesday the global death rate from the disease caused by the new coronavirus is 3.4% — far deadlier than the seasonal flu. But on Wednesday night, President Trump said he had a “hunch” the number was actually much lower. Trump was speaking with Fox News’s Sean Hannity.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better. And then, when you do have a death, like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California — I believe you had one in New York — you know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4%, which is a very high number, as opposed to — as opposed to a fraction of 1%. But again, they don’t — they don’t know about the easy cases, because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases. So I think that that number is very high. I think the number — personally, I would say the number is way under 1%.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, House lawmakers passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package for combating coronavirus. On Tuesday, the White House barred TV cameras and microphones from a daily briefing on coronavirus, telling journalists they were only permitted to take still photos. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the U.S. coronavirus task force, had this exchange with a reporter Monday, though you can’t exactly call it an exchange. It was the last question asked as he was walking away from the podium, the reporter saying, “Can you give guidance for the uninsured?”

BRIAN KAREM: Can the uninsured get tested? Gentlemen, ladies, can the uninsured get tested?

KATIE MILLER: Screaming to the camera isn’t going to get you anywhere.

BRIAN KAREM: Well, how about answering the question?

REPORTER: We would like an answer to that question.

BRIAN KAREM: That’s a valid question. Could you answer it?

AMY GOODMAN: “How about answering the question?” the reporter asked. Then, on Wednesday, Vice President Pence downplayed the threat from coronavirus.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It’s a good idea to stay home when you’re sick; avoid close contact with people who are sick; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; cover your cough or sneeze with tissue, throw the tissue in the trash; clean and disinfect frequently; wash your hands with either disinfectant or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive requiring New York health insurers to waive cost sharing for coronavirus tests and related emergency room, urgent care and office visits for those who already have insurance. But what if you don’t have insurance? What if you don’t have paid sick leave?

Today, we host a roundtable discussion on whether the coronavirus is actually the best case for Medicare for All. We’re joined by four guests, from the two ground zeroes in the United States in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. Here in New York, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler is with us, professor at CUNY-Hunter College, primary care physician, lecturer at Harvard Medical school and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. Elisabeth Benjamin is with us, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society of New York, co-founder of Health Care for All New York campaign. And New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Four of the coronavirus cases in New York are in her district. She is the lead sponsor of the Healthy Terminals Act, about what happens to the airport workers. And in Seattle, Washington, Kshama Sawant is with us, socialist city councilmember, where she’s a member of the Socialist Alternative, part of a movement that defeated Amazon and won her reelection last year. Seattle is ground zero on the West Coast for the coronavirus.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, let’s begin with you. Is the coronavirus the best case for Medicare for All?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Coronavirus is a very good case for Medicare for All, but, as doctors, we see the case for Medicare for All all the time. Our diabetic patients can’t afford the insulin they need to stay alive. People with chronic conditions come in late, when they’ve already gotten complications, because they can’t afford to see their doctors. Some of those people are uninsured, but many of them have insurance, but they can’t afford to use it due to copayments and deductibles. We see immigrants who are afraid to seek care because of the new draconian immigration laws that put their immigration status at risk if they use public services like healthcare. So there’s plenty of case already for Medicare for All. I think that’s the reason why the majority of exit polls show that voters overwhelmingly support the idea of Medicare for All, at least from the Democratic side.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, Dr. Wooldhandler, what are the tests that are required to see if someone is infected with the virus, and what kind of costs, what kinds of costs that those tests would impose on patients who do not have insurance?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: OK, the tests are something like a throat swab, something like you get for a strep throat. The problem is, the person giving the test has to have a mask and be a medical worker, because it can cause the person to cough and spread the virus to the person who’s right in front of them trying to get the test. The costs of the tests are, A, the cost of going to the doctor, which for most people, under most circumstances, mean they have to take money out of their pocket either to pay for the whole visit or for their copayments and deductibles; the cost of the test itself, which I guess is going to be free for some people in New York at this point, but for most Americans, most of the time, that can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Obviously, people also have the cost of taking time off of work. And if the doctor says to them, “Go home and self-quarantine for a couple of weeks,” that can be a disastrous financial hit for many American families.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back to our discussion. We’re going to be talking about what’s happening here in New York, what Governor Cuomo has called for, what’s happening in the New York state Legislature, and then we’re going to go to the other ground zero — again, this is in the United States. We don’t know how many people have the coronavirus in the United States. Because of faulty tests by the CDC, very, very few people have been tested, in the range of 500. President Trump said by the end of this week more than a million tests would be administered, but we haven’t seen that happen at this point. And we’re going to be speaking with Kshama Sawant, who is the city councilmember from Seattle, where tens of thousands of workers have been told to stay home by Amazon, by Facebook, and a number of people have died in the area at a nursing home. Stay with us.

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