Mar 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Richard Burr told constituents in February coronavirus was "akin to the 1918 pandemic"

Senator Burr.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a small, private group of constituents on Feb. 27 that the coronavirus outbreak was "akin to the 1918 pandemic," audio obtained by NPR shows.

Why it matters: "The 1918 pandemic," or the Spanish flu, killed millions worldwide — and Burr's comments directly contradicted those from President Trump on that same day, when the U.S. had 15 confirmed coronavirus cases.

What Burr said: "There's one thing that I can tell you about this — it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history. It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."

  • "Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference."
  • "There will be, I'm sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, let's close schools for two weeks, everybody stay home."

What Trump said that same day at a White House meeting: "It's going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better."

  • "It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows."

The big picture: Burr did not sound a similarly strong alarm to a wider, more public audience.

  • The gathering was organized by Tar Heel Circle, a business-oriented North Carolina group with a membership fee between $500 and $10,000.
  • NPR found that the businesses and organizations present at the meeting had donated more than $100,000 to Burr's 2016 campaign. He has said he does not plan to run for re-election in 2022.

A spokesperson for Burr told NPR that Burr has "worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of the coronavirus."

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