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Roundtable: Coronavirus Is Best Case for Medicare for All

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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.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” by Tame Impala. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we look at the coronavirus in the United States, in the aftermath of the House passing an $8 billion bill and, in New York, a major initiative being represented.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So we’re hosting a roundtable with several guests to look at the steps that have been taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. And let’s start with New York. This is Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking about the steps New York will take to combat the spread of the virus.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: [We announced, as you know, yesterday] insurance regulations that will protect people who have to pay any costs. I’m going to amend the paid sick leave bill that I sent to the Legislature, to add a specific provision that says people who, because of this situation with coronavirus, have to be quarantined should be protected. Their employer should pay them for the period of quarantine, and their job should be protected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Andrew Cuomo, New York governor. I want to ask — Elisabeth Benjamin is with us. She’s 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. So, Elisabeth, can you respond to what steps have been taken at the state level in New York? What kind of access do people have to healthcare who suspect they might be infected?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: Yeah. I mean, I think this is an important example of where state and local governments are really going to have to step up. The congressional $8.3 billion is not what we would have liked to see. It does not guarantee that people will actually have their costs paid for when they go for treatment, as Dr. Woolhandler spoke up about.

But also, here in the state and the city of New York, we have done amazing things. The first thing that we did was Governor Cuomo said, “Look, if you have insurance, you don’t have to pay a copay. There should be no cost barrier to going to see the doctor and getting that lab test.” That’s fantastic. Every other governor in the state — I mean, in the country, should do that, if they possibly can.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s the first?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: He’s the first. And quite frankly, we would have liked to have seen Alex Azar, who’s the head of health and human services, do the same thing nationally. Not happening on a national level. That kind of leadership is just not happening.

Second thing that Governor Cuomo has called for, which we should have seen at the national level, as The New York Times called for yesterday, is we should have paid family sick leave — paid sick leave. So, if you go out, as Dr. Woolhandler spoke up about again, if you go out, if you’re quarantined, you shouldn’t have to worry about losing your job. You should, in fact, not worry about having to make your rent check or paying for food or taking care of your kids. That should happen. Governor Cuomo again called for emergency paid sick leave. He had actually put it in his budget proposal already. We need the Legislature to say yes, grab that idea, do it right away, do it next week.

The other thing I want to say is that localities can do this, too. New York City already has paid sick leave. So, if you live in New York City, you’re fine. Many other states have paid sick leave. Many other localities do. So, if you’re in a state where there’s paid sick leave, you know, familiarize yourself, because you might already have that benefit. But we should have it nationally.

And then the — OK — no, just the last thing I would say is, we’re also really lucky in New York City to have a public hospital system. So all immigrants are welcome. They should also have no cost barriers to getting treated. And we’d like to see that around the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You mean people who do not have insurance —

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: Insurance, right. Yes. Thank you.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: — can get medical care for free?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: Correct.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In public hospitals in New York?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: In New York City. And we have —

AMY GOODMAN: And if you’re undocumented?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: If you’re undocumented, immigration, cost, no barrier. And that’s what we’d like to see around the country. Now, interestingly, we have a way to do that. It’s called the federal Emergency Medicaid program. So, for low-income people, this is again where we need federal leadership. They should just say, “Federal Emergency Medicaid covers for all coronavirus testing and treatment. People should get in there.” Now, what if you’re in the 14 states who chose not to expand Medicaid? Well, you’re in trouble, because their Medicaid levels are quite low. But in the rest of the country, 37 states have an expanded federal Medicaid program. Again, lack of federal leadership. They should be saying, “This will pay for all coronavirus. Coronavirus is an emergency. We will pay for it.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. You’ve just introduced legislation called the Healthy Terminals Act. For people who don’t work in the airport but are concerned about going to the airport, I wonder how often they think about the people who must be in the airport all the time. Talk about what you’ve introduced. And also, tell us what district you represent.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Sure. So, I represent the 34th state Senate District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester counties. As we have read in the news recently, one of the children of a man who lives in New Rochelle is currently quarantined. The child goes to SAR, which is a school in Riverdale, and so this directly impacts District 34.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a high school, and the high school was closed.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: High school and also the elementary school, as well, so there’s two different schools. SAR has two different schools in Riverdale. So that’s quarantined. So, I think, you know, the Healthy Terminals Act is an attempt to really make sure that the people who are on the frontlines of international travel, at our airports — JFK, LaGuardia, Stewart Airport — have protection. During the Ebola crisis, these airport workers were only given a paper mask. We know that that is almost ridiculous, because a paper mask will not prevent someone from getting Ebola.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Vice President Pence said yesterday that people should stop using masks, that they should go to healthcare professionals.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So, I mean, that’s very laughable to me, because these are airport workers who, though they are on the path to making $19 an hour, they do not make enough money to be able to purchase health insurance through their insurers. And they make too much money to be able to qualify for Medicaid. And so, here you have the security workers, the baggage workers, the wheelchair attendants and the food and retail workers in our airports, the people who are doing the back-breaking work to make sure that our airports function and work, are not protected under any insurance plan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain how many, if any, airport workers in New York and across the country are government employees, public employees, and, if so, whether they have coverage?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So, the airport workers under the Healthy Terminals Act are subcontracted, so they work for corporations like a JetBlue or an American Airlines. And so, you know, these are corporations —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Even including security personnel at the airport?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Including some. It depends. Including some. It could be that way. They could — if you are a security — it all depends, and that’s a very legal answer. But if you work in a certain terminal, you could work as a subcontractor for JetBlue.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, TSA agents, many have been privatized.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And they are contractors now.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Exactly, exactly. And so, when you think about this, and you think about the millions and billions of dollars that these corporations are making and the fact that these airport workers are not protected, it’s egregious. So, this bill is a pathway to make sure that these airport workers can have an additional $4.54 added to their wages so that they can actually be able to purchase health insurance and not have to think about whether they’re going to put food on their table or pay their rent or be able to make sure that they can have health insurance, because healthcare is a basic human right, and this bill ensures that that is the case for these specific workers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the year 2000, when Senator Bernie Sanders argued for a House amendment — he was a congressmember — to require drugs funded by public dollars to be sold at a reasonable price. The amendment passed in the House but was deleted in the subsequent deliberations.

REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Much of the drug research in this country comes from taxpayer support. Our amendment requires that the NIH abide by current law and ensure that a company that receives federally owned research or a federally owned drug provide that product to the American public on reasonable terms. This is not a new issue. During the Bush administration, the NIH insisted that cooperative research agreements contain, quote, a “reasonable price clause,” end-quote, that would protect consumers from exorbitant prices of products developed from federally funded research. The NIH several years ago abandoned the clause under heavy pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bernie Sanders when he was a congressmember representing Vermont. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, at this point, we’re not talking exactly about drugs, when it comes to the coronavirus. It will take about a year, or at least, for a vaccine to be developed. But follow up on what he was calling for and how the cost of drugs fits in with Medicare for All and what it would mean.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, we won’t have a vaccine for a while. We may find that some antiviral drugs are a little bit helpful. These can be very expensive, and it’s really critical that they be paid for for everyone. We’ve been talking a lot about vulnerable populations, like poor people, like immigrants, but the lack of Medicare for All is forcing us to fight this epidemic with a hand tied behind our back, and that threatens everyone, including wealthy people and people with insurance. You know, 25% of cab drivers don’t have health insurance in this country, 12% of home health aides, 15% of cleaners. So, rich people cannot avoid coming into contact with this epidemic just because they’re rich. No matter how much money you have, you cannot buy your way out of this epidemic. We’re going to have to conquer coronavirus together. And that’s the whole idea behind Medicare for All.

My other point is that these one-off measures are great — you know, Cuomo’s rules or the $8 billion that’s been released — but one-off measures leave us fighting this epidemic with too little, too late. We needed these things in place a month ago or two months ago. And we need these things in place for the next epidemic and the next one after that. We need a health system that lets everybody who has symptoms go get the healthcare they need, and get the information they need to stop spreading the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: Elisabeth Benjamin, you’ve called for a Manhattan Project? Explain what that is.

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: So, it seems to me what’s sort of shocking in this $8.3 billion that’s coming through Congress is, for one, I think when it hits the Senate, they’re going to basically allow pharmaceutical companies to charge whatever they want, whatever treatments, whatever vaccine they develop. If I was president for a day or, you know, a week or month or through this thing, I would say, “Oh my goodness, we need a Manhattan Project right now for the coronavirus.” Now, when we did a Manhattan Project for the bomb, we didn’t privatize it. We didn’t let a bunch of companies have the bomb. We shouldn’t let a bunch of companies be in control of a vaccine that could be life-saving, or any drugs to treat it. This stuff — you know, we have to use private — I agree, we have to use private companies to help develop this, but — you know, and pay them well, but then it should be government-owned. We can’t afford to have the kind of price gouging we see with insulin, with the EpiPen. You know, we just can’t see that for coronavirus.

AMY GOODMAN: And the $8 billion, where it goes?

ELISABETH BENJAMIN: Where does it go? Good question. I mean, it isn’t necessarily going to pay for paid sick leave. It isn’t going to pay for healthcare for people to pay all their bills. It’s going to prop up the healthcare system — which is important. I agree with Dr. Woolhandler, that’s, you know, important. But it’s too little, too late. And actually, real Americans and real people who live here, residents of America, will not see that money.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to Seattle, one last question to state Senator Biaggi, talking about you representing the district that is ground zero. It just shows how the spread works. You mentioned it briefly. You have this Manhattan lawyer —

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — who comes through Grand Central and goes to work there every day.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: From New Rochelle.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, that is the Port Authority of the world. I mean, it’s right across from Port Authority.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Yes, millions of people every day.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s exposed to thousands of people. He has children. So, you talked about schools in Westchester — in Riverdale, rather. And then, what about the child who goes to college in New York, in Manhattan?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So, that child, as well, at Yeshiva University, right? So that child then also is being quarantined at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Yeshiva closed?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I’m not sure that Yeshiva has closed. But as a precautionary matter, the entire family is actually quarantined. The neighbor who drove the lawyer to the hospital is quarantined, because, unfortunately, that neighbor also has tested positive for the coronavirus. As a matter of precaution, Mount Vernon School District has closed all of their schools.

But I just want to take one moment and step back, because I think it’s very important to say this. While all of these precautionary matters are taking place, and it is very important, of course, to follow all the procedures that the Department of Health at the state level has put out, at the city level has put out, I want to make very clear that the most important thing we can do is to remain calm, to continue to follow procedures — wash your hands, don’t shake other people’s hands. And if you do feel sick and you feel that you are worried that you might have COVID-19, you should call your doctor right away, and you should go and get checked out. And let your doctor make the decision for you, instead of making the decision for yourself and creating some form of a hysterical response, which is the most important thing that we can prevent, I think, at this moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go now to Seattle, Washington, which is really the ground zero, the epicenter, of the coronavirus here in the U.S. Amazon says an employee there tested positive for the coronavirus this week and is currently in quarantine. Amazon has told all of its nearly 800,000 employees to halt, quote, “nonessential travel in the U.S. and internationally” amid the coronavirus outbreak. It also emailed carriers it contracts with to request trucking companies advise employees to stay home if they feel sick. Amazon and other companies have warned of limited same-day and next-day delivery services.

To talk more about the situation in Seattle and in Washington more broadly, we’re joined now by Kshama Sawant, who is a socialist councilmember in Seattle, a member of Socialist Alternative, part of the movement that defeated Amazon and won her reelection last year. She helped make Seattle the first major city to win a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

So, Kshama, welcome back to Democracy Now! Could you talk about what the situation is now in Seattle on the ground, and the decision by Governor Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency, and what’s happening now?

COUNCILMEMBER KSHAMA SAWANT: As you correctly said, Nermeen and Amy, Seattle and the Seattle region is ground zero, in many ways, because we’ve seen, as of last evening, 45 diagnosed cases of coronavirus in the Seattle area — not in the Seattle city, but mostly in the Kirkland area, which is near Seattle — and we’ve had 10 fatalities because of that. And eight of those deaths have happened, unfortunately, in one senior nursing facility. And so, it does highlight the vulnerability especially that is faced by the elderly community members and those who have weakened immune systems to begin with.

And it’s good that Governor Inslee has declared a state of emergency. And in fact, today at 1 p.m. Pacific time, the City Council will be meeting to vote on a proclamation that Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan has written in order to have emergency powers invoked in the Seattle area in order to contain the virus and deal with it. And it’s important that these steps are taken, but I will tell you, honestly, if you talk to ordinary people here, there’s a certain emergency proclamation fatigue that they will tell you about, because we’ve seen such emergency proclamations being declared on other issues, emergency issues like homelessness, which are related to the overall dysfunctionalities of the capitalist system, and really nothing being done to follow up on it, not surprisingly, because this is mostly status quo corporate politicians who are trying to look like they’re doing something, but there are very few follow-up steps.

And so, I really agree with many of these steps, the immediate steps, that have been outlined by your other guests about ensuring that copays are eliminated for people to get testing and also — or whatever medical care they need. And in fact, several days ago, I sent a letter to the mayor and to the King County executive saying that they should absolutely do that immediately, and also the issue of flexible work hours and enough paid sick leave. And look, the reality is that even though the union movement has valiantly fought for and won paid sick leave, both in Seattle and in Washington state, most workers who need this leave and who are probably the most vulnerable to such cases are the lowest-paid workers, and they don’t dare stay at home, because they feel like they need to go to work. Forty-five percent of Americans don’t have even a single dollar in savings.

And so, we absolutely need to take these emergency steps, but it does bring up the question that looms large, as Dr. Woolhandler is saying, about the urgent need for Medicare for All. And we need to have these stopgap measures, but it really needs to have a serious conversation about Medicare for All and really the need to fight for Bernie Sanders’s campaign, because Joe Biden represents the same status quo that is not going to allow us to have this, because they billionaire class is absolutely opposed to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Kshama Sawant, Vice President Pence is coming to Seattle today. The task force, supposedly, is coming to Seattle. What do you feel it’s most important for him to know? And what are the plans for this task force coming there? You have now, what? Fifty thousand Amazon workers have been told to stay home, to work from home. Facebook, as well.

COUNCILMEMBER KSHAMA SAWANT: That’s true. And in fact, it’s a very advisable cautionary step to take. So, tech workers are able to stay home and work. But I would really also urge the political officials to think about the workers who are not going to be able to stay home and work. And in fact, so, it’s important that the question of delivery drivers, ride-share drivers, the airport workers — as your other guest was talking about — port workers, public transit workers, custodial workers, hotel workers — many of them are going to be on the frontlines of potential exposure, and many of them are very vulnerable workers, many of them immigrants, with people of color women, who are not going to dare take time off, because they are, you know, hanging by the —

AMY GOODMAN: By definition, they’re service workers, and they have to be at work. Also, being paid to work at home is different from sick leave. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, people might be saying Medicare for All is fine, except that the coronavirus is here now. How do you get there?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, we have an election where a majority of people are saying they want Medicare for All, so that’s the first step to getting there, is for people to express their will in the political arena. We’ll get Medicare for All when we have a movement for Medicare for All. And maybe people — what people are learning from the coronavirus, that we do have to take care of the healthy American people together, we can’t do it one-off and one at a time — maybe that’ll help move the politics of the situation toward Medicare for All.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Woolhandler, could you also talk about the fact that, I mean, the number of people who are most vulnerable to this — the people who are most vulnerable to this are the elderly and people who already have compromised health in one way or the other, and also the fact that children, for some reason, although parents across the country have been so concerned, that children under the age of 5, even though they’re most vulnerable to the ordinary flu, somehow don’t seem vulnerable to this at all?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: OK. This virus does attack older people more, and there have been some deaths in older people who did not have serious underlying conditions. Something about the immune response of elder people puts them at risk. You know, in addition to issues like asthma or heart disease, just being older puts you more at risk. Children are probably — based on what we know about the flu, children are probably getting the virus and probably spreading the virus. Happily, they’re not getting symptoms. But in terms of controlling the epidemic, we actually need to stop children from coughing on each other —

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of like a Typhoid Mary situation? I mean, they’re carriers.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Yeah, they may be.

AMY GOODMAN: I didn’t mean to make it sound like that.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: That’s actually true with the seasonal flu. For years, we saw most of the deaths in older, sicker people and thought, “Oh, they must be the ones spreading it.” Turns out, with seasonal flu, most of the spread was occurring among schoolchildren. So —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Have schoolchildren been tested in the U.S. so far?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: No one has been tested in the United States, unless they actually have the symptoms of the illness or they got a known exposure, like on a cruise ship or these families’ exposures. So, we don’t know this yet, but I think the cautious thing to do at this point is to keep sick children at home, as well, for everyone who is sick to stay at home. For people who have an unexplained illness or are seriously ill, they need to see a doctor. And frankly, many people can get this illness and spread it around if they’ve just got the symptoms of the common cold. So, for them in particular, we need to reduce the barriers to them calling a health clinic or health professional and getting tested, if that’s appropriate. OK. And I do want to tell people, if you don’t have a personal doctor, you can call an emergency room, you can call a clinic. And most of the time, they’ll put you on the phone to a health professional who can help you make a decision about what you need to do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there for now but of course continue to follow this issue. You can go to democracynow.org to look at our coverage of this issue globally. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, thanks so much for being with us, co-chair and founder of the — you name the program.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Physicians for a National Health Program. We’re a group of 23,000 doctors who advocate Medicare for All.

AMY GOODMAN: New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester, ground zero for the coronavirus right now, she is the author of the Healthy Terminals Act in the state Legislature. Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society of New York, co-founder of the Health Care for All New York campaign. And Kshama Sawant, who is the socialist city councilmember from Seattle, Washington.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, voter suppression in Texas and California? Stay with us.

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