What's Next? A conversation with Congressman Tom O'Halleran

U.S. Congressman Tom O'Halleran speaks at the Para Club in Page, AZ (Aug. 14, 2019)

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series covering an extensive interview with U.S. Congressman Tom O’Halleran. Next week, the topic is police reform. O’Halleran’s background as a police officer brings practical insights to the “defund police” discussion.

PAGE – It’s easy for rural towns to get lost in statistics. Small towns like Page must compete with larger cities for everything from safety improvements on U.S. Route 89 to adequate support for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small towns not only compete for state and federal resources, but also for human resources, critical positions in public safety, education, and health care. Page, already faced with a housing shortage and the loss of its largest employer, must still meet the needs of the community. On top of that, COVID-19 has exposed the fragile side of a tourism economy.

The Chronicle spoke with U.S. Congressman Tom O’Halleran on Monday. His District 1, geographically, is the largest in Arizona and the 11th-largest congressional district in the U.S. O’Halleran represents a lot of small towns like Page. His job is to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.

“We don't want them forgotten and so part of my job is to make sure they're always at the forefront of people's minds, and we do that on a consistent basis,” O’Halleran said. “We have a team of legislative assistants and a team of district workers that are constantly on the ground or working in Washington to address the issues of all the cities and towns in the district.”

Page, along with the hard-hit Navajo Nation, is a hot spot for COVID-19 if looked at statistically. With a population of about 7,500, the town doesn’t score enough “points” to get the attention big cities get.

Because of blitz COVID-19 testing by Canyonland Urgent Care, Page appears statistically on par or better than most areas of the country, but according to experts, that’s still not enough, and if the follow-up tracing isn’t sufficient, there’s no way to get control of the virus. O’Halleran said, “Coconino County does tracing. They just don't have the capacity to do it on the level that's necessary.”

Funds have been available for testing, though the needed supplies weren’t. States, and by extension, cities, had to compete for limited testing kits and medical supplies. While the Cares Act pump funds into the system, the rushed bill fell short in many areas. The Heroes Act, all 1815 pages of it, proposes an additional $3 trillion to get a handle on both the economic and health issues caused by COVID-19. In addition to funds for individuals and families, it includes nearly $1 trillion for state, local, territorial and tribal governments. This will help them pay vital workers like first responders, health workers, and teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs. It would provide $200 billion for hazard pay to essential workers who risked their lives during the pandemic. It provides $75 billion for testing, tracing, and treatment, including hiring over 100,000 people for tracing.

The Cares Act, which easily passed both houses, and the Heroes Act has wide support, though there are line-item concerns. The bill was delayed because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t bring it to the floor for a vote. He claims there’s too much pork spending in the bill. This could delay any chance of the bill passing until August. With a second wave of the novel coronavirus expected in the fall, coupled with seasonal flu, the bill’s effectiveness could weigh more toward ‘putting out fires’ than proactive benefits by the time it’s put into action, if at all. With the Cares Act, funds bottlenecked at the state level. O’Halleran would like funds to go directly to where they’re intended, to the cities, hospitals, and specific areas of need.

Still, the effectiveness of any federal attempts to control the spread of disease is impacted by public perception. The lack of consistency in information, often overshadowed by misinformation, shows signs of refueling distrust toward ‘expert opinions’, and too often, the best scientific evidence becomes collateral damage in the chaos.

In many areas, including Page, basic safety measures, like wearing masks and physical distancing, are ignored, and often politicized. As economic frustration and the desire to return to normalcy grows, adherence to common-sense safety guidelines dwindles.

Individualism under the guise of personal rights and freedoms, trump community cohesiveness needed to bring the deadly virus under control.

While Americans try to make sense of information, often incomplete, questionable, or politically slanted, most leaders at the federal and state levels are well-informed or have the opportunity to be so.

O’Halleran said, “Some people thought by the time warmer weather would come along it would be gone. Members of Congress knew that that was not going to be the case because we sat in on so many briefings from the scientists and specialists, then different industries that have to do with vaccines and specifically these types of pandemic issues – H1, N1, SARS, Ebola.

“We've talked to all those people that were highly involved in that process. And this type of virus is not the flu. It's a specific virus that is very dangerous. And we have to be careful. We do not want it to form a foundation during this summer and allow it to be robust as we get into the late fall, the flu season.”

O’Halleran is concerned that the damage potential of the novel coronavirus will be “magnified because people will get the flu still, and they will get sick, and that will drive down their immune system. Historically, with influenza, people still try to go to work.”

He emphasized, “That'll be an area where COVID-19 will be trying to continue to live. That's its goal, to live within our bodies, and it does a lot of destruction, and we just don't want it to get to that point.”

He said we need more people wearing masks and it’s important they “understand that they are part of a larger community that's at risk, and they’re also part of the economic engine in America, and we have to be able to protect that by working together so that businesses do not have to be closed.“

O’Halleran stressed the importance of community efforts: “We have to beat this. I think the American public is strong enough to do this, but we're all going to have to work together.”