Vice President Mike Pence, who is the head of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, arrives on Capitol Hill, accompanied by Ambassador Debbie Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator,Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Washington. Credit: Alex Brandon | AP

Facts, not fear, must win the day as officials at all levels of government respond to the growing number of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

The situation requires both careful planning and swift action. It will also surely require significant federal investment.

So, it is good news that Congress has reached agreement on a bill that would allocate more than $8 billion for a coronavirus response plan. That far exceeds the $2.5 billion package proposed by the Trump administration. In addition, congressional appropriators, including Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree, have reached an agreement to correct the White House’s flawed plan of shifting $37 million from heating and cooling assistance as part of its response to the virus. Votes on the package are expected this week.

The response to coronavirus requires action and it requires funding, and that should not come at the expense of the low-income households or seniors, in Maine and around the country, who rely on assistance with their energy bills to help stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, provides valuable support to some of American’s most vulnerable citizens by helping with their energy bills. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that nearly 30,000 households in Maine received funding through LIHEAP.

The Trump administration, which has proposed cutting LIHEAP entirely, had held back $37 million of this winter’s heating aid to help fight the coronavirus. The move has been met resounding and justified opposition from some legislators, including the members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

Collins and Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, have together been longtime and forceful advocates in Congress for the LIHEAP program. They issued a joint statement last week urging the White House to reverse the LIHEAP cuts.

“Diverting LIHEAP dollars that people depend on in the middle of winter is not the right approach. There are better ways to dedicate the necessary resources to protect Americans from the coronavirus threat,” Collins and Reed said. “We should speed needed coronavirus assistance through an emergency appropriation, not divert needed funds from LIHEAP and other public health priorities.”

Sen. Angus King and Collins sent a joint letter to Senate appropriators calling for an emergency coronavirus appropriation rather than shifting funds away from programs like LIHEAP. King has called it “unconscionable to be taking money out of people’s pockets that they need to protect themselves in the middle of a Maine winter.”

Collins and King welcomed news this week that the Trump administration is releasing almost all of the remaining LIHEAP funds for this winter, including more than $3.6 million for Maine. But they also re-emphasized the Trump administration’s flawed diversion approach.

“At the same time, we continue to strongly oppose the Administration’s decision to divert money from the LIHEAP program to fight the coronavirus,” the Maine senators continued. “We are working with our colleagues to quickly pass a supplemental funding bill that will strengthen the government’s response to this public health threat without reallocating funding from key programs like LIHEAP.”

Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in Washington, told the Associated Press that the $37 million still on hold is roughly one percent of the LIHEAP budget, and may seem relatively small, but would result in the elimination of assistance for about 75,000 low-income families this year.

Rep. Chellie Pingree teamed up with Democratic Reps. Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont in a letter to Congressional appropriators that tore into the administration for “robbing” $37 million from LIHEAP.

“The program supports families with young children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. Home heating/cooling is directly tied to the health and safety of these families,” the representatives wrote. “Leaving them in extreme cold or heat will only exacerbate critical health problems families may already be facing, or force families to choose between paying their energy bill or other priorities like putting food on the table.”

Rep. Jared Golden has signed on to an appropriations letter stressing the importance of LIHEAP funding, and criticized the administration’s approach in a statement to the BDN.

“In this country, we don’t force thousands of seniors and children, many of them in Maine, to go without heat in the dead of winter,” Golden said.

“The administration needs to seriously reexamine their approach to coronavirus, honor congressional authority, and use the full amount of LIHEAP funding to help people keep the heat on,” he added.

As Pingree and her colleagues so rightly pointed out in their letter, “We cannot solve one health crisis by creating another.”

The coronavirus demands a balanced, carefully planned and robust response. Siphoning off much-needed heating assistance from our country’s most vulnerable fell short of that standard.