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Sen. Burr offered dire warning about the coronavirus at private luncheon three weeks ago

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)  speaks during a March 3 committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) speaks during a March 3 committee hearing on Capitol Hill. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)
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Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) at a private luncheon three weeks ago compared the potential impact of the novel coronavirus to the unusually deadly 1918 flu pandemic, offering a far more dire assessment than President Trump and Republican lawmakers were publicly relaying at the time.

A recording obtained and aired Thursday by NPR prompted scrutiny over whether Burr had offered a more frank warning at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by North Carolina business leaders than he and his colleagues were sharing more broadly.

“There’s one thing I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history,” Burr said, according to the NPR recording, which was not disputed by his staff. “It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

At least seven times over the past two months, President Trump said the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. were falling or contained even as they rose. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The 1918 pandemic, caused by an H1N1 virus, is estimated to have infected about 500 million people worldwide and led to at least 50 million deaths, with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Critics of Burr, including the North Carolina Democratic Party, were quick to point out that the senator’s comments came on the same day that Trump publicly predicted that the coronavirus would one day disappear “like a miracle.”

“Burr chairs the Senate Intel Comm so of course he knew how bad it could get,” Joyce Vance, a University of Alabama law professor and former federal prosecutor, said in a tweet. “The same day Trump said it would go away when the weather warmed up, almost 3 weeks ago, Burr was warning a wealthy slice of constituents, but not the rest of the country.”

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Burr’s office disputed such characterizations, saying that the comments by the senator — who has long focused on responding to pandemics — were not at odds with anything he has said publicly before or since the luncheon and that the event was not as exclusive as critics have suggested.

“Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years,” Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said. “His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack. Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort.”

Though advertised as an event for members of the Tar Heel Circle, a group largely composed of businesses leaders with membership fees that range from $500 to $10,000 a year, the luncheon was also open to members of its parent group, the nonpartisan North Carolina State Society of Washington, according to Burr’s office. Individual members can join the parent organization for $25, according to its website.

The North Carolina State Society later confirmed the characterization of the audience by Burr’s office and noted that it also included other members and staff from the North Carolina congressional delegation.

Burr’s office pointed to several public statements he has made in the weeks before and subsequent to the Feb. 27 luncheon, including an op-ed co-written with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that was published by Fox News on Feb. 7.

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“Americans are rightfully concerned about the coronavirus — there are 12 confirmed cases of this new infectious disease in the United States, and the ability of the virus to rapidly spread in China, where it has infected more than 24,300 people and left 491 dead, is alarming,” the two senators wrote.

They went on to offer a note of optimism.

“Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump administration,” Alexander and Burr wrote.

In another statement highlighted by Burr’s office, he reacted on March 3 to the first reported coronavirus case in North Carolina.

“The U.S. is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency like coronavirus,” Burr said. “But Congress must continue working to make sure first responders have the resources they need and the federal government is using all the tools at its disposal to stem the problem.”

According to the NPR report, the recording of Burr was shared by an attendee of the luncheon. Burr is heard warning of some consequences of the coronavirus that have since materialized.

“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel,” he told the gathering. “You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or can be done on videoconference.”