WASHINGTON — Top federal health officials on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans from the highly contagious Omicron variant, facing withering accusations from senators about the scarcity of coronavirus tests and confusing guidance on how soon people who test positive for the virus can return to normal life.
In a nearly four hour hearing, lawmakers accused the administration of not being able to meet demand for at-home testing. They also noted that the White House would only fulfill its promise to send 500 million to American households free of charge after the current surge.
The health officials testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during one of the most trying weeks yet in the administration’s struggle with the pandemic. Infection rates are skyrocketing nationwide, and hospitals set a single-day record on Sunday for the number of patients with the virus, surpassing last winter’s peak.
While Democratic senators were hesitant to criticize, Republicans were uncompromising, claiming that President Biden had misled the public health strategy and messaging by his pandemic response team.
“Most Americans can’t make heads or tails of anything coming out of this administration,” Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, said. “I’m getting texts as we speak, sitting here, asking, ‘Where do I get the test?’ We spent billions on this.”
Officials who testified stated that the administration had made every effort to vaccinate Americans during a sudden, shape-shifting pandemic.
“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is, most people are going to get Covid,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, offering one of the federal government’s most pointed acknowledgments of Omicron’s impact since the variant arrived in the United States.
“What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens,” she added.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Mr. Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the virus had “fooled everybody all the time, from the time it first came in, to Delta, to now Omicron,” adding, “We’re doing the best we possibly can.”
This hearing was necessary because the Omicron variant and the Delta variant have strained hospital systems and caused businesses difficulties to stay open due to staff shortages. According to a New York Times database, there are an average of more that 761,000 infections being reported in the United States every day.
Over the past seven days, over 135,000 people were hospitalized for the virus. This is an 83 percent increase on the two weeks prior. Hospitalizations also include those who are accidentally positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions not related to Covid-19. However, there is no national data on how many people fall into this category.
The New York Times obtained a Jan. 5 internal government document that modeled scenarios that suggested there would be more than one million confirmed infections per day by March 31st.
Because of the insufficient number of tests and the failure to report positive results from at home tests to authorities, this number is widely considered a large undercount. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is an independent research center at Washington University. It estimated that Omicron variant infections would affect more than half of Americans over the next six weeks. Many cases will be mild to not-so-severe, according to public health experts.
Senior officials from the Biden administration stated Monday that infection and hospitalizations would peak nationally by January, and then plummet sharply. Dr. Fauci cautioned on Tuesday that there would be peaks and valleys across the United States.
The hearing was interrupted by a fierce back-and forth between Senator Rand Paul, Republican from Kentucky. The senator accused Dr. Fauci, accusing him of trying to undermine scientists with opposing views about the virus. Dr. Fauci strongly denied this accusation.
His voice raised, Dr. Fauci said personal attacks from Republicans had put his safety and his family’s safety at risk. He held up a copy of a fund-raising webpage for Mr. Paul that featured a “Fire Dr. Fauci” graphic, and he said the senator had targeted him to score points with conservatives.
After nearly a whole year of concerted effort, Mr. Biden is now facing an exhausted public with alarming headlines. Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether he was worried about the nation’s fight against the virus, the president said that he was “concerned about the pandemic, just because worldwide it’s not slowing up very much.” He added that federal officials were working to help states and hospitals.
Last week, a group of former pandemic advisers to Mr. Biden published a series of articles calling on the administration to reset its response to Covid in a way that would acknowledge the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely.
Tuesday’s comments by federal officials also suggested that. Dr. Rochelle Pe. Walensky from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told lawmakers on Tuesday that it was important for Americans to use rapid testing to guide their behavior, rather than reporting every positive result to government agencies.
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“One of the really important purposes of these rapid tests, even if we don’t count them, is to empower the public to do the right thing through this pandemic” and not infect others, she said.
The former Biden advisers suggested that N95 masks be distributed free of charge. These masks could provide better protection against the Omicron variant of Omicron than surgical or cloth masks. C.D.C. A C.D.C. official stated Tuesday that the agency was updating its mask guidance to better reflect the fact that different masks offer different levels protection.
At the hearing, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said there were 737 million N95 masks in the government’s strategic national stockpile, and that additional contracts for such masks would most likely be finalized by February. The government is asking potential contractors to make 141 million of the masks each month at a “surge capacity,” she said.
Over and over, senators from both parties returned to the administration’s efforts to meet the demand for tests, and its sometimes conflicting recommendations on when to use them.
Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and the committee’s chairwoman, praised the administration’s work to supply vaccines and treatments to Americans, but she said that health workers were still spread far too thin and that schools were “worried they’ll have to shut down again if they can’t get the support for testing they need.”
Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the panel’s top Republican, criticized the administration’s promise to deliver 500 million rapid tests to the homes of Americans, saying that Mr. Biden had pledged to do so without having the tests in hand.
“Try to get the administration to refrain from making these proclamations until we’ve got the product,” Mr. Burr said to Ms. O’Connell.
Ms. O’Connell said that when federal health officials saw Omicron sweeping across South Africa and Europe, “we immediately reached out to our manufacturers to understand any supply constraints they had and to evaluate their surge capacity” for producing tests.
“We have also met daily with them to make sure that they have what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act had been used in recent weeks to help free up supplies and manufacturing capacity.
She said that in the fall, the administration had invested $3 billion to support manufacturing rapid tests, leading to an increase in availability, but she acknowledged that “that’s not enough.”
Ms. O’Connell said that while some of the 500 million tests the government had bought would be sent to Americans by the end of January, it would take two months to distribute the rest. As one senator pointed out, the Omicron surge may have reached its peak by then.
Just 50 million of the 500 million promised tests have been purchased so far, Ms. O’Connell said, though more agreements will be announced in the coming days. She said that seven million tests were shipped to community health clinics, and food banks out of 50 millions that the administration had committed to sending.
Source: NY Times