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As Zika Virus Reaches D.C., Congress Calls for Action

Alexander said his committee will hold a hearing on the Zika virus. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Alexander said his committee will hold a hearing on the Zika virus. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the Zika virus reaches the United States and the nation’s capital, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for an urgent response to prevent its spread, and are scheduling briefings and committee hearings to address it.  

District of Columbia health officials confirmed this week three cases of the virus in D.C., including one pregnant woman. On Friday, Senate Democrats wrote to President Barack Obama, calling for an “urgent and aggressive response” to the virus. “We believe that a well-coordinated interagency response plan, coupled with strong investments in our research and response programs, is critical to addressing the Zika virus,” the senators wrote.  

They called on the president to take a series of steps including directing USAID and the Department of Health and Human Services to analyze gaps between international and national responses; developing a national strategy to monitor, identify and report infections; increasing research efforts; and coordinating federal agencies.  

The letter is the latest in an uptick of congressional interest in the virus, which is typically transmitted through mosquitoes but has been known to be sexually transmitted. Symptoms include a fever, rash, and joint pain, and the virus can cause a condition that results in abnormally small heads for children when pregnant women are infected.  

The virus has affected mainly Latin American countries, and the World Health Organization estimates up to 4 million people in the region could be affected by the end of the year. On Monday, the WHO declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has invited HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to brief relevant committees and party leaders on the virus next week. A senior GOP aide told Roll Call the briefing is set for Tuesday afternoon.  

“We know there is increasing concern about this virus and the spread in the United States as we head to warmer summer months,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Given the public concern that followed the first Ebola case in our country, I think we could all benefit from having a better understanding of what preparations are being made to protect Americans.”  

McConnell also discussed the virus with Obama when he and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., met with the president on Tuesda y. McConnell stressed that he did not want to take chances that the government was slow to respond, as some critics charged about reaction to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  

The Senate Help, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on Feb. 24 to learn more about the virus and what can be done to prevent its spread.  

HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., wrote a letter to HHS Wednesday, encouraging officials to “apply the lessons learned from previous experiences” and utilize tools available to combat the virus. The committee’s ranking member, Patty Murray, D-Wash., has also written to Burwell and other health officials encouraging them to “do everything possible” to respond to the virus and inform Congress of any additional tools or resources they may need.  

Across the Rotunda, the bipartisan leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., has requested a series of briefings from government experts and announced intentions to hold a hearing on the virus in the weeks ahead, as well.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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