Dr. Raul Ruiz is entering the final six months of his fourth term in the U.S. Congress (and running for a fifth term), and much to his own surprise, the medical doctor who spent years working in emergency rooms finds himself in a new role—as a widely sought-after expert.
When nationwide social-distancing guidelines were announced back March, the U.S. House of Representatives was forced to stop meeting in person, so many representatives, including Ruiz, returned to their districts.
“It was hard to find consistency, clarity and credibility here when I got (back) from D.C.,” Ruiz said during a recent phone interview. “I really took it upon myself—given my medical and public-health/disaster-response training and background—to make myself available and to keep this (discussion) in line with a very data- and fact-based scientific approach. I try to answer questions as honestly and transparently as I can. I admit what I don’t know, or what science doesn’t know, and (try) to create a sense of social responsibility, of loving your neighbor—to really help people understand the big picture and see the forest. Then, they can make better decisions when they have to choose amongst the trees.”
The public is confronted daily with numerous and often conflicting messages related to the COVID-19 pandemic—from the often confusing positions declared by President Trump, to the more-considered policies and analyses of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both which run in contrast to the policy proclamations of Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, or the more erudite views of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
When the Independent spoke to Ruiz on April 21, we had to ask: Where does the Coachella Valley stand regarding the pandemic?
“This is what I know for a fact: This virus is not going away,” Ruiz said. “People will still be carriers of this virus, even if they’re asymptomatic and feel perfectly fine. And in the absence of massive testing, we don’t know truly how many people are carriers in our communities. Therefore, it will depend on how the community practices social distancing and the (other) precautions to determine whether we see an outbreak, and another rapid rise in coronavirus transmissions. So we are not out of the woods until we have two things. One is a vaccine. That’s the definitive preventative measure that will help us get back to a pre-coronavirus state of normalcy. But in the absence of a vaccine, the second objective would be to have the safeguards in place to prevent another outbreak and surge that could put us over our hospital capacity to handle the amount of coronavirus cases.
“In a nutshell, the safeguards required are having what it takes to help our first responders save lives and protect their own. Secondly, we need the capacity to quickly identify new cases, to isolate them through quarantining, (to do) sufficient contact tracing—and, basically, contain the virus.”
Large-scale, accurate testing is key to beginning the return to relative normalcy.
“Currently, Riverside County has tested about 1-2 percent of the total population—but we need 30-40 percent of the population to be able to get tested readily,” Ruiz said. “I’m talking about testing through primary-care doctors. I’m talking about testing in businesses, testing at food pantries and food banks, testing in the schools. We need massive drive-through testing, where people can get screened and tested even if they don’t have the symptoms. That will give us a better picture of the prevalence of the coronavirus in a community, and also it will help us quickly identify people who are infected—who we hadn’t known about before—in order to do contact tracing, isolate them and quarantine others who may be at a high-risk.
“At this point, I don’t believe we have the system in place to do that. People can come up with plans (to re-open), but having an idea written on paper is different from having the actual personnel, the training, the equipment and the resources needed to implement any such plan.”
How did we, as a nation, arrive at this juncture in the battle against the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918? And can a massive testing effort, such as the one Ruiz described, come to fruition?
“It does require federal support, and this is one of the biggest failures of the response by the federal government,” Ruiz said. “This pandemic was not taken seriously enough in the months of January and February, and that’s precisely when a full and comprehensive use of the Defense Production Act should have been implemented in order to plan the production of the needed tests, PPEs (personal protective equipment) and ventilators required to handle the surge—and we (as a nation) are still behind. In California, where we have the fifth-largest economy in the world, we have enormous purchasing power to create a statewide plan to augment testing. I believe the governor is focused on a statewide plan now, given the lack of movement from the (federal) administration.”
Ruiz said the federal government, if it so chooses, could still initiate a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to bringing the virus’ spread under control—and thus create a clear, safe path toward reopening our country. In fact, Ruiz has a three-point plan of his own.
“It’s not too late for the president to fully utilize the Defense Production Act,” Ruiz said. “What does that look like? The president assigns multiple companies, in multiple industries, to produce not only the PPE, the tests and the ventilators, but also all of the ingredients that go into each of those, in a targeted amount and by a certain date. The federal government guarantees that it will cover the cost of purchasing (the finished) products and of distributing them. Also, it will help with any capacity expansion or modification that those manufacturers need, and even help provide the labor pool needed to get it done. I would use the CEOs of those companies to form a rapid-response task force to problem-solve the nuances of the supply chain logistics in real time.”
“The second thing the administration should do is create a federal-command coordinating mechanism that’s regionally based, has a very clear chain of command, and can strategically produce, deliver and re-stock these materials in different hospitals.”
Ruiz explained how this command structure could effectively free hospital administrators and local-government officials from the stress of searching the world for supplies, as well as eliminate price-gouging, plus hoarding by concerned state administrations.
“The third aspect of this plan that I’ve sent over to the administration—and made a lot of noise about—is that we need transparency,” Ruiz said. “Currently, we cannot clearly plot who’s responsible for what in the supply chain. We don’t know what real role Jared Kushner has, or what real role the vice president has, or what real role Admiral (John) Polowczyk has. This (creates) a dilemma for people who want to trust and augment the system when the chain of command is so vague.
“I say it’s not too late, because we won’t have a vaccine for at least another year. So we’ll need to practice precautions for another year. I would love to have all non-essential businesses open with social-distancing precautions, but to do that, and safely avoid another massive surge that puts us back to stay-at-home orders, we need massive testing, and a massive amount of PPEs.”
Of course, 2020 is an election year—and traditional voting may not be safe during a pandemic. Oh, and the United States Postal Service is on thin financial ice. Both of these related topics have been the subject of much recent bickering in Washington, D.C.
“I’m in support of a vote-by-mail program,” Ruiz said, “because that’s the best way to practice our patriotic and civil voting responsibility while keeping our citizens safe during these elections. Democrats (in Congress) proposed funding for the post office during the CARES Act, but the Senate Republicans refused and said it was, basically, a non-starter. But I know that it will continue to be an advocacy on the part of House Democrats and Senate Democrats, because we believe that everybody who can vote, should vote, responsibly and in the safest way possible. Forcing individuals to stand out in the cold (at polling places) without enabling proper protections and precautions is putting them intentionally in harm’s way, when you know that there is an easy way to vote safely from home.”
The U.S. Postal Service could also play a key role in any at-home testing programs that get developed in the coming months. Ruiz said he and his fellow Democrats would continue to fight to save the Postal Service—but there’s only so much they can do.
“I’m confident that we’re going to include USPS support in a Democratic House bill,” Ruiz said. “Whether or not the Senate will vote for it, or whether or not the president will veto a plan that allows every citizen to vote safely by mail—I cannot guarantee that.”