House Democrats Demand White House Plan for Virus Testing

WASHINGTON (CN) – Turning up the heat on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in America, Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee issued a letter to senior health officials Thursday demanding they turn over information about U.S. testing capacity.

Addressed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the 10-page missive from Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney cites a March 13 government report stating the Trump administration expects the pandemic to last “18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”

“However, this document does not include a plan to address one of the most significant failings with the response to date – the shortfall in coronavirus testing,” the New York Democrat wrote, demanding the White House plan be handed over by Tuesday.

A worker wearing protective gear, left, transfers a container to another worker outside one of the tents at a state-managed coronavirus drive-through testing site that opened Thursday on New York’s Staten Island. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Friday will mark two months since the first confirmed case of the respiratory virus Covid-19 washed ashore in the U.S. Since then, testing has been slow to come online due in part to the initial lack of resources: first when Trump slashed the CDC’s global disease budget by 80% in 2018, and then when the agency decided to use its own testing kits rather than ones approved by the World Health Organization for use in 66 countries.

The initial round of kits ended up being defective after hospitals were instructed to eschew using their own in favor of the CDC’s flawed product. Testing samples then had to be sent and certified to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Strict criteria as to who could be tested and confusion between the CDC and various public labs, even as the contagion was clearly exploding, triggered more delays.

Maloney inquired about the defective tests in another, separate letter issued to Redfield and Azar on March 3.  Her latest request presses the two officials for these answers again, but she also flagged more recent matters, like a statement from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine made just 24 hours ago.

A week ago, the Republican governor said he believed over 100,000 residents were expected to have coronavirus – undiagnosed. Last week, the state had just 1,000 test kits. During a Wednesday press conference, DeWine was still lamenting the shortage.

“The most important thing we can do right now, and I really can’t stress this enough is to reserve the limited tests we have for those Ohioans that are the sickest and most at risk. We must reserve those for those individuals,” he said.

During a White House coronavirus task force briefing Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence, who spearheads the group, was unable to offer any specifics on how many more tests will soon be produced or how much faster capacity could increase. The hedge by Pence comes after weeks of administration officials like Azar claiming at one time that the administration would have the ability to test millions of people.

Instead, Maloney noted, in the first week of March, the million tests promised were closer to tests for 75,000 people. In the second week of March, the administration’s 4 million test kit capacity claim crumbled as well.

“There is no indication that target was met,” Maloney wrote.

For now, House Democrats demand Redfield and Azar turn over the Trump administration’s plans for producing and distributing adequate supplies and equipment for testing as well as any previous plans it had on file in January, late February and this month. The documents must show how many tests exist across the U.S. from CDC, state and local public health laboratories as well as commercial laboratories and more, Maloney wrote.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 11,000 Americans have tested positive for Covid-19 and the U.S. death toll surpassed 150.

“Time is of the essence,” Maloney wrote. “So we ask that you produce these documents by March 24, 2020.”

Thursday’s letter was also signed by National Security Subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch, Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin, and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Harley Rouda.

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