Top federal health officials on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans from the highly contagious variant of Omicron, as they faced lackluster accusations from senators about the paucity of coronavirus tests and confusing guidance about how quickly people who test positive for the virus can return to a normal life.
In a hearing that lasted nearly four hours, lawmakers accused the administration of remaining unable to meet the demand for at-home tests, noting that the White House would honor its pledge to send 500 million of them to American families for free only after the current period expires. Peaked.
Health officials have testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during one of the most difficult weeks yet in the administration’s struggle with the pandemic. Infection rates soared nationwide, and hospitals set a one-day record on Sunday for the number of patients infected with the virus, surpassing the peak of last winter.
While Democratic senators offered only gentle criticism, Republicans were harsh, claiming that President Biden and his pandemic response team had subverted public health strategy and messaging.
“Most Americans can’t make heads or tails of anything that comes out of this administration,” said Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama. “I get text messages as we talk, I’m sitting here, asking, ‘Where can I get the test? “We’ve spent billions on this.”
The officials who testified said the administration’s sweeping effort to test, treat, and vaccinate Americans in the middle of a shape-shifting pandemic suddenly reached a new inflection point with the Omicron variant.
“It’s hard to address what’s really going on right now, which is that most people will get Covid,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Impact since the arrival of the surrogate to the United States.
“What we have to do is make sure that hospitals, transportation, you know, keep working, and other essential services aren’t disrupted while that’s happening,” she added.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor, said the virus “has fooled everyone all the time, from the time it first appeared, to Delta, to now Omicron,” adding, “We’re doing the best we possibly can.”
The hearing came as the Omicron variant, along with the Delta variant, strained hospital systems and caused companies to struggle to stay open due to staff shortages. An average of more than 761,000 infections are reported in the United States each day, according to the New York Times database.
On average over the past seven days, more than 135,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus, an 83 percent increase from the past two weeks. Hospitalization totals include people who have had the virus symptomatically after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19, but there is no national data showing how many people are in this category.
Modeling scenarios cited in an internal government document dated January 5 and obtained by The New York Times suggest there will be more than 1 million confirmed infections per day by the end of the month.
This number is widely seen as a much lower number due to the paucity of tests and the widespread failure of people to report positive results from tests at home to government authorities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent health research center at the University of Washington, estimated last week that the number of daily infections had already risen to six million, and predicted that more than half of Americans would develop an omicron variant over the course of a year. the next six weeks. Public health experts said many cases will be mild or asymptomatic.
Senior officials in the Biden administration said in interviews Monday that infections and hospitalizations are expected to peak nationwide by the end of January and then decline sharply. But Dr. Fauci warned on Tuesday that peaks and valleys would not look the same across the United States.
The session took a turn early with a fierce back-and-forth between Dr. Fauci and Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Senator accused Dr. Fauci of working to undermine scientists’ conflicting views on the virus, which Dr Fauci has vehemently denied.
Raising his voice, Dr. Fauci said personal attacks from Republicans put his safety and that of his family at risk. He uploaded a copy of a fundraising web page for Mr. Paul that featured a “Fire Dr. Fauci” graphic, and said the senator targeted him to score points with the governors.
After nearly a year of concerted efforts to tame the pandemic, Biden is facing an exhausted audience and a new rush of unsettling headlines. Asked by reporters on Tuesday if he was concerned about the nation’s fight against the virus, the president said he was “worried about the pandemic, just because around the world it’s not slowing down much.” He added that federal officials are working to help states and hospitals.
Last week, a group of former Biden epidemic advisers published a series of articles calling for the administration to reset its response to Covid in a way that would recognize the “new normal” for living with the virus indefinitely.
On Tuesday, federal officials also hinted at this. Dr. Rochelle B. Walinsky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers that Americans’ use of rapid tests to guide their behavior is more important 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 enable the public to do the right thing during this pandemic” and not infect others, she said.
One idea suggested by former Biden advisers was to distribute free N95 masks, which could better protect the Omicron variant of cloth or surgical masks. An agency official said Tuesday that the CDC is intent on updating its mask guidance to better reflect how some masks offer different levels of protection.
At the hearing, Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said there are 737 million N95 masks in the government’s strategic national stockpile, and that additional contracts for such masks are likely to be. It was completed by February. She said the government is asking potential contractors to make 141 million masks each month with an “increase capacity”.
Time and time again, senators from both parties have turned back to the administration’s efforts to meet the demand for the tests, and its sometimes conflicting recommendations for when to use them.
Senator Patty Murray, the D-Washington Democrat and chair of the committee, praised the administration’s work to provide Americans with vaccines and treatments, but said health workers remain too thinly deployed, and schools are “worried they will have to close again” if they can’t get support for the testing they need. they need it.”
North Carolina Senator Richard M. Burr, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican, criticized the administration’s promise to provide 500 million rapid tests to Americans’ homes, saying Biden had pledged to do so without the tests on hand.
“Try to get management to hold off on making these statements until we have the product,” Burr told 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 restrictions they had and to assess their ability to ramp up production” to produce the tests.
“We also met with them daily to make sure they get what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act has been used in recent weeks to help free up supplies and manufacturing capacity.
She said that in the fall, management invested $3 billion to support rapid manufacturing tests, which increased availability, but acknowledged that “that’s not enough.”
Ms O’Connell said that while some of the 500 million tests purchased by the government will be sent to Americans by the end of January, it will take two months to distribute the rest. By then, as one senator noted, Omicron’s surge will likely have peaked for a long time.
Ms O’Connell said only 50 million of the 500 million tests promised have been purchased so far, although more agreements will be announced in the coming days. Separately, seven million tests have been shipped to community health clinics and food banks, out of the 50 million the department has committed to sending, she said.