IS IT SAFE TO “GET BACK TO WORK?”
by Sharon Rondeau
(May 12, 2020) — On Tuesday morning, four federal health officials testified to the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee about the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
All are testifying remotely due to possible exposure to the coronavirus during the course of their work. The hearing is titled, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.”
Just after 10:00 a.m. EDT, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), also appearing remotely, gave his opening statement, which covered expanded testing, pandemic preparedness in general, the development of a vaccine for the virus, and reopening America after an approximate eight-week partial “lockdown.”
Alexander is not seeking re-election this fall. During his remarks, he said that the “impeachment” of President Donald Trump with which the Congress was “preoccupied” now “seems like ancient history” given the public health emergency generated by the virus.
He said that “all roads back to work, back to school” will stem from “widespread testing” and quarantining “those who have been exposed.” He said that there is insufficient “money” to continue to maintain businesses closed.
One of Alexander’s staff tested “positive” for the virus, ranking committee member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) acknowledged following Alexander’s concluding remarks.
Appearing remotely, Murray criticized the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, which she said includes “corruption” and “promoting dangerous, unproven treatments.”
She criticized the administration’s critique of the CDC’s proposed reopening guidelines which are reportedly under review by the White House coronavirus team.
Murray said she hopes for “a serious discussion” about what needs to be done to reopen businesses and called for a “national strategic plan” to ramp up testing. She said such a plan must not focus on “PR.”
“Testing alone will not be enough to open our country,” Murray said. Regarding personal protective equipment (PPE), she said, “We desperately need this administration to step up and get that equipment to states…who simply cannot get nearly enough.”
Directing her remarks to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, she emphasized that “worker safety is not optional,” referring to meat-packing plants, where outbreaks have been identified. Along with her criticism of the White House response, she said that Congress “needs to work quickly on another aggressive relief package” for economic recovery in addition to three bills already passed. She said that Americans need to know that Congress is doing all it can to facilitate a return to work under safe conditions.
Of those present in the Senate hearing, some wore masks, and two used their phones while Alexander spoke.
At 10:26, Alexander announced NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci as the first witness followed by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. Adm. Brett Giroir will testify next, Alexander said, and will speak about testing. The last witness is FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, formerly chief of a cancer center at the University of Texas.
At 10:29, Fauci began his opening remarks from what appeared to be an office replete with books. He spoke about “therapeutics” which “are in various stages of testing,” including the use of “convalescent plasma” used to help ill people recover.
He detailed an “international” clinical trial of Remdesivir, a large quantity of which was recently donated to the national stockpile by its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences. Fauci spoke about vaccines under development and said that with the NIH’s swift response to the crisis, a “Stage 1 clinical trial” is now under way for one of the vaccines.
“We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners,” he said of potential coronavirus vaccines. He also “warned” about “possible negative consequences” from vaccines.
Fauci’s opening statement concluded at 10:33, at which time Alexander turned the hearing to Redfield.
Redfield emphasized that reopening America involves different circumstances from region to region. He said that testing and “surveillance for asymptomatic infections” are important and thanked CDC employees for their work during the pandemic. He thanked Americans for following the guidelines of “social distancing” and “staying home.”
His remarks concluded at 10:39.
In his opening statement, Giroir, who is associated with the U.S. Public Health Service, spoke against the backdrop of a chart showing the increase in testing since March which has included a public-private partnership with major retailers such as CVS and Walgreens. He described how the administration obtained PPE as the weeks unfolded. He said that on April 27, “a new framework” for testing was introduced to include “asymptomatic individuals.”
States and territories have established their own testing goals which the administration is supporting with shipments of swabs, testing machines and other supplies, Giroir said. “We anticipate marked increases in current tests,” he said, in addition to newly-developed tests.
Giroir thanked the members of the U.S. Public Health Service and the HELP Committee for their support.
At 10:45, Hahn gave his remarks, which began with his thanks to “the American people” for heeding the guidelines to stop the spread of the virus. He expressed his condolences to those who have lost loved ones.
Hahn said that the FDA “has worked with more than 500 developers” on a response to the virus and generated more than 90 emergency authorizations. He said the agency is watching for fraudulent test kits in order to alert the public.
He said that “serologic” tests will play an important role in fighting the virus although a vaccine is the ultimate answer to prevention. Until one is approved, he said, the FDA is using an “emergency acceleration” program to approve “safe and effective products to treat COVID-19.”
Once his opening statement concluded, Alexander opened the hearing to questions from senators, beginning with himself, then Murray.