Experts Urge Testing and Transparency in First Coronavirus Panel Hearing

WASHINGTON (CN) — The pathway out of the Covid-19 pandemic demands testing and well-coordinated strategy but it also requires transparency, a group of public health experts told a new congressional body tasked with overseeing the federal government’s response to the crisis.  

Wednesday marked the inaugural meeting of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, a body that was formed after a contentious vote in the House last month.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks during a news conference on April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Committee Chair Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., kicked off the remote hearing by emphasizing a point that was made repeatedly throughout the session: the panel’s purpose is to make certain that the trillions of dollars flowing around the federal government’s response to the pandemic is spent “equitably and efficiently.”

Speaking to grievances aired early and often by Republicans on the subcommittee, Clyburn beseeched his fellow lawmakers to believe that the oversight to be done is not about placing blame on President Donald Trump or anyone else for the virus’ deadly spread.

Talk over congressional spending was largely put to the side during the panel’s first hearing. Instead, the committee considered guidance from former commissioners to the Food and Drug Administration – Drs. Scott Gottlieb and Mark McClellan – plus insights from Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and others.  

Across the board, the experts urged Congress to keep in mind certain priorities that will make their ability to oversee the federal government’s conduct more seamless.

“There are five key steps the federal government can take: increase visibility into the entire testing supply chain and use that power to ensure supplies are distributed adequately,” Jha said. “The federal government must coordinate supplies and issue an adequate strategy for testing. They must also ensure greater incentives for more and better tests so the private sector knows there is a market for them and we must be transparent about how much testing is needed.”

Over 70 days into the pandemic and with more than 83,000 Americans dead, Jha lamented that much time and many lives have already been lost.

“It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown and we must not make the same mistake again,” he said.

The Trump administration released a blueprint for a national testing strategy last month. While Wednesday’s panelists agreed it contains useful guidance for states scrambling to increase testing capacity, they suggested it was still too vague.

“The outline President Trump laid out has important elements. States must play a central role in testing because they know when and where to test,” Jha said.

But when 50 states are competing against each other, that creates unnecessary difficulty and opens the door for new problems to emerge, he said.  

Over the last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear and California Governor Gavin Newsom, among others, regularly went public with frustration over federal bidding wars they were forced to endure as constituents lay sick or dying and health care professionals clamored for better protective equipment.

“While I think our states are terrific, I’m not sure I want Delaware competing with foreign countries or New York or California to try and get supplies,” Jha said. “I think the federal government can play a helpful role in helping states get resources.”

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director for the American Public Health Association. also noted that holding the government to account during the pandemic largely hinges on Congress’ ability to monitor how its testing infrastructure functions.

This type of oversight will not just benefit taxpayers but can also help reduce the disproportionate impact the crisis has on low-income and vulnerable populations. 

And when it comes to the nation’s plan to conduct contact tracing and surveillance, “demystification” of the process is paramount, Dr. Tom Inglesby, director for the Center for Health and Security, told lawmakers.

There are 66,000 contact tracers working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today and having Congress watch closely how these programs progress will shape their outcomes, he argued.

Republicans on the committee, like ranking member Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, often took umbrage at the testimony, and at times the committee’s very existence.

Last week, both men suggested the oversight panel was untoward and amounted to “harassment” of U.S. businesses.

Democrats sent letters last Friday to a handful of companies — including a manufacturer of marine vessels, a biopharmaceutical company and even a video streaming company that received loans exceeding $10 million after the first tranche of relief aid in the CARES Act was approved — asking them to return the funds since they were intended for small businesses, not large corporations with stock market values over $25 million.

One of the companies, MiMedX Group Inc. — which only weeks before taking the loan paid $6.5 million to resolve a Justice Department investigation involving allegations that it submitted bogus commercial pricing disclosures to the Department of Veterans Affairs — has since returned the money.

Unconcerned with political infighting, Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, told members this next phase in the pandemic is one where Americans, including legislators, may need to define a new normal until a vaccine is produced.

Whether Congress wishes to entertain partisan bickering matters little to the virus.

“The virus doesn’t care,” Benjamin, with the American Public Health Association, said. “If we can work together we can move this thing in the right direction. We can start today to do this right. I just hope we put the resources and leadership in to get it done.”

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