In a pandemic, more Americans are turning to Congress for help

(Photo courtesy of Monica Achter) Monica Achter takes a selfie with her parents, LoRene and David Richards, aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship before they were evacuated to an Air Force base in Georgia and later returned to their homes in Utah. While many passengers on board the ship were sickened by COVID-19, they never contracted the disease.

Washington • Being stuck aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship as the coronavirus raged on board was “pretty horrible” for Utah’s Monica Achter and her parents, David and LoRene Richards.

They didn’t know when they could disembark the vacation-turned-nightmare — or if the novel virus would strike them first.

And when hope finally emerged, an evacuation off the ship to a Georgia military base for quarantine, they found themselves again stuck, only now hundreds of miles away from home and running dangerously low on life-sustaining insulin for LoRene.

“She went into insulin shock,” Achter says of her mother. “I was just watching her go downhill. And she was like facedown on her bed, holding her last little bit of insulin from her pen.”

They asked for help 10 times to get the needed medicine. It never arrived.

But soon, a charter jet did, whisking them and fellow Westerners first to Montana and then Salt Lake City. Achter calls it a “miracle,” and one she says stemmed from pleas to Rep. Ben McAdams.

“And he’s really not our congressman,” Achter says, noting her home in Layton and her parents’ in Riverdale, all outside of McAdams’ 4th Congressional District. “He worked so hard for us anyway. I am just such in his debt because my mom, with her diabetes and everything and not getting her insulin, she could have died so easily.”

While Americans may often hold Congress in contempt — cockroaches, zombies and dog poop have polled higher than the politically messy legislative branch — during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, its star has risen. Polls are showing more support for the legislative branch.

It doesn’t hurt that Congress has poured trillions into the economy, aiding small businesses with forgivable loans and sending a direct payment to most Americans. The chambers, for the most part, have held back on some of their partisan mudslinging.

And it could also be that Americans are looking to Congress for help, including through individual pleas.

Calls to congressional offices are spiking from those needing advice on returning to America from abroad, seeking loans to prop up mom and pop shops or yearning for a promised relief check.

“A lot of people say Congress isn’t in session due to this coronavirus, but I’m working long hours,” says McAdams, a Utah Democrat who contracted COVID-19 and spent eight grueling days in a Utah hospital, sustained by oxygen before his recovery and release.

“My staff is working long hours now,” McAdams adds. “Even when I was in the hospital, I wasn’t able to work full days, but, you know, I tried to stay in close contact with my team because there was just so much casework that we were trying to stay on top of.”

Other members of Utah’s federal delegation report the same uptick in requests for help.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, says it’s been “sunup to sundown” in responding to constituents’ needs.

“It’s been a very busy time,” he said recently. “But I will tell you, it’s been a very rewarding and productive time, as I should talk with people, particularly in their moment of need, a crisis. It really is a rewarding opportunity to feel like you’re able to help them, connect with them and help them access what’s available out there and fight for their cause.”


When stuck on the Grand Princess, Achter wasn’t thinking about contacting politicians. The Utahns were just trying to stay safe and hoping for a way out.

Then her roommate on the trip got a note from the office of Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak saying he was working to get them off the ship.

“We’re like, ‘Wait a minute; somebody can do that?’” Achter recalls.

Their family tried Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and all the members of the Utah federal delegation, asking for help. Journalists, too, peppered elected officials with questions about the Utah family’s case.

McAdams called Achter personally, and his staff worked with federal and Utah officials to get them off the cruise to the U.S. Air Force base and eventually home. A staffer in the congressman’s office continues to check in with Achter and her family — who never contracted the coronavirus.

“So it’s like the whole office is really concerned about us — deeply, truthfully, honestly concerned about us,” she says. “They didn’t just say, ‘Oh, you’re home’ and then go, ‘OK, never mind, we don’t need to talk to you ever again.’”

The delegation also reports staffers working with the State Department to help get missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints home as the crisis emerged.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and now the running mate of gubernatorial hopeful Thomas Wright, spent time working with federal officials to get flights out for Latter-day Saint missionaries, including several in African countries where it wasn’t easy to get to them, according to his office.

And there was a joint effort by Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney to get a Utahn out of the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, a mother who had already lost a family member to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.

Stuck in Wuhan

Provo resident Jiahui Salisbury had flown to Wuhan, China, to visit her father for Chinese New Year on Jan. 20, just as news about the virus was breaking.

“When I got there, they announced they were going to lock down the whole city,” Salisbury says. “It’d never happened before.”

She thought she could ride it out there, but then it became clear the virus was incredibly contagious and more deadly than some flu bug.

“By the time I realize I needed to come home, they still have no flights back,” she says. “So I was stuck there.”

With three college students back in Utah and a disabled son needing care, Salisbury reached out for help.

Lee and Romney, in an unusual agreement but one they say works well, share staffers who work on requests from constituents.

Salisbury says the staff talked to the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan and her family and helped her get on an emergency flight out. Only she wasn’t able to get to the plane because of the city’s lockdown.

For the second flight that got her out, the senators’ offices had worked with the embassy to make sure her name was on an approved list to travel.

“They got me permission to get out of the house,” she recalls. “So we are able to get to the airport. A lot of people weren’t able to get to the airport. Some people missed the flight. So they [the senators’ staffers] worked so hard.”

Lee and Romney note they’ve helped constituents get back to America from a host of countries around the world and resolve bureaucratic or paperwork issues during the pandemic.

“Working around the clock with relevant federal agencies, the Romney-Lee team has assisted hundreds of Utahns and their loved ones return home safely,” says Romney spokeswoman Arielle Mueller. “In addition to continuing to help Utahns resolve problems with issues like Medicare and Medicaid, the team has assisted folks who have been laid off in filing for unemployment insurance and helped local businesses apply for the Paycheck Protection Program so they can retain their employees and keep their doors open.”