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Federal response to omicron variant draws bipartisan rebuke

Lawmakers questioned new tweaks to U.S. isolation guidelines and why the government has been slow to get and distribute free coronavirus tests

WASHINGTON (CN) — Top American medical officials faced a tide of criticism and frustration across party lines Tuesday in a Senate hearing over Covid-19 hospitalizations reaching an all-time high driven by the omicron variant.

A major focus of the health committee was the announcement two weeks ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people who have contracted coronavirus could isolate for five days, half of what the previous guidelines recommended, with no need to test again before ending their isolation.

"I’m not questioning science. I’m glad you refrain from testing mandates, but I’m questioning your communication strategies,” Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said this morning. “It’s no wonder that the American people are confused.”

The committee meeting came as 145,982 people were in hospitals with Covid-19 on Tuesday, topping the previous record set in January of 2021, while virus-testing opportunities remain scarce.

Democratic senators echoed Burr's frustration, with Senator Patty Murray of Washington emphasizing worries about medical staffing shortages and the impact of the past two years on the mental health of health care workers.

“These are not new challenges. I’ve been raising many of these concerns since the early days of the pandemic," Murray said.

President Joe Biden has announced multiple measures in recent months to target the highly contagious variant, and increasing the availability of testing has been a primary focus, but those policies have been slow to roll out.

To date the government has procured only 50 million of the 500 million rapid tests that the White House promised at the start of December to ship American homes, according to Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

O'Connell said the government is making deals not with manufacturers but with companies that have an excess of tests to fulfill the testing needs. The first tests will begin to ship in late January, and the rest will ship out over the course of February and March, O'Connell testified.

Rolling out free rapid tests to federal health care centers and food banks, another branch of the Biden administration's strategy to combat empty pharmacy shelves, is also underway. Seven million of the 50 million rapid tests have been shipped out, a plan that was announced more than one month ago.

Lawmakers criticized the timeframe of these rollouts while health officials went on the defensive, emphasizing the protection vaccines still provide and the unprecedented nature of fighting a pandemic dominated by a continually mutating enemy.

“This is an extraordinary virus, the likes of which we have not seen even close to in well over 100 years,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president.

After Indiana Senator Mike Braun asked if the country should change its pandemic strategy, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, urged lawmakers to focus on keeping hospitals supplied and services running.

“I think that we're talking about a natural disaster, and you can fire your board of directors because your factory was devastated by a hurricane or tornado or a wildfire, but I don't know whether that would improve this situation,” Woodcock said. 

Woodcock said the pandemic "won't last forever," but noted that it's entering a new stage, one of high infection rates.

"It's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get Covid," Woodcock said.

Fauci said it's "difficult to predict" when and how the spike in omicron cases will decline, and it will likely vary across the country depending on vaccination and infection rates.

The health officials noted omicron was not the first Covid-19 variant, and also won't be the last.

While his administration's strategies have received increasing criticism, Biden said he believes in their decision making.

"I'm confident we're on the right track," Biden told reporters before flying to Georgia.

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