WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. is lagging woefully behind on large-scale domestic testing for coronavirus, a senior health expert told Congress on Wednesday, warning that the outbreak will get worse if actual containment efforts don’t get underway soon.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, delivered the bleak news at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee that coincided the World Health Organization’s announcement that that the global COVID-19 outbreak is officially a pandemic.
The recorded number of coronavirus cases now exceeds 1,000 individuals in 38 states across America, and the U.S. death toll stands at 31.
The worst is “yet to come,” Fauci said, noting that whenever a virus spreads through communities, the management dynamic shifts.
“It becomes a situation where you’re not going to be able to effectively and efficiently contain it,” Fauci said. “What you see now, even though we are containing it in some respects — we keep getting people that are coming into country who were exposed by travel, and then you get community spread. It makes the challenge greater. Things will get worse than they are right now, but how much worse depends on our ability to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside and our ability to mitigate within our own country. The bottom line is it is going to get worse.”
Lawmakers also heard Wednesday from Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said the sudden increase of domestic cases just 24 hours earlier was a clear indicator that the virus is spreading and fast.
Democrats on the committee, led by Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, excoriated the Trump administration for delays to test-kit distributions at the start of the U.S. outbreak in January and pointed to South Korea’s aggressive containment efforts.
South Korea was hit particularly hard, and the virus has so far infected roughly 7,500 people there, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or KDC. But drive-through testing, virus surveillance in public spaces and on public transportation, when combined with the nation’s quick start on distributing tests from the first sign of the outbreak, have made the outbreak more manageable.
The death toll in South Korea hit 54 Wednesday, but the KDC found that there were 150 fewer new cases of COVID-19 reported. Wednesday marks the fourth consecutive day that diagnosis rates have dropped.
The House Oversight Committee has long awaited Wednesday’s hearing. On March 3, Maloney issued letters to Fauci, Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar seeking information on diagnoses as well as their respective departments’ plans to handle costs associated with testing for the uninsured and underinsured.
The committee also wanted to know why the CDC initially refused to use testing kits already approved in 60 countries by the World Health Organization and instead went with their own design that ended up being defective.
The initial round of kits were contaminated at the CDC’s manufacturing center in Atlanta and an investigation spearheaded by the Food and Drug Administration is underway. Redfield declined to say whether the person or people responsible for bungling the process were removed or if there were plans to do so.
These matters were to be addressed at length but at the top of the hearing, Maloney announced testimony would end prematurely because witnesses, she said, were asked to return to the White House for an emergency meeting. The White House contends there was no emergency meeting and that the session was planned.
A senior Democratic aide to the committee told Courthouse News that the Health and Human Services Department only informed the committee of the White House meeting this morning.
Both Fauci and Redfield were expected to attend a separate taskforce meeting at the White House well after the House hearing would likely conclude. When the imminent disruption was announced, Fauci said he would return at the chairwoman’s pleasure, but after an hourlong recess the officials had not returned for the day. Maloney said she had “no idea” what caused the seemingly abrupt change of schedule. The hearing will resume Thursday with both officials.
Things are likely to be a bit tense when testimony continues. During Wednesday’s hearing, praise for the Trump administration’s “early response” to the coronavirus was starkly limited to Republican lawmakers and Redfield. The CDC director’s endorsement appeared to floor Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.
Recovery from the administration’s decision to go with its own tests alone could cost weeks, if not months, in the campaign to quell the virus, Krishnamoorthi said before displaying a large chart depicting test rates in South Korea, the United Kingdom, Italy and America.
The U.S. and South Korea had their first confirmed case of coronavirus within a day of each other. Both nations developed diagnostic tests within three days of each other. Then, the countries diverged.
From Feb. 6 to March 10, South Korea tested 4,000 people per every 1 million in its population. Italy, during this same time, tested 1,000 people for every million. The U.K. tested 400 people for every million, Krishnamoorthi said, holding the graph.
The Illinois Democrat asked Redfield to point out where the U.S. testing rates appeared on the chart.
“I don’t see it,” Redfield said.
“I can assure you the data is there but it doesn’t show up. While South Korea tested 4,000 people for every million, we are at 15 people for every million in this country,” Krishnamoorthi said. “That’s a testing response that’s almost 300 times more aggressive than what it is here in this country and the problem, Dr. Redfield, is when we don’t test as we should, the virus spreads and people die.”
Representative Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., was visibly frustrated when addressing the panel. He said Massachusetts, which is now has the fourth highest rate of COVID-19 diagnoses in the nation, is fed up with Republican claims that Democrats are merely politicizing the virus in order to shame President Donald Trump.
All members of the committee voted for emergency funding to combat the outbreak, indicating lawmakers can fight alongside each other to get the virus under control, he said.
“But that doesn’t matter when the president repeatedly undercuts health officials,” Lynch remarked, before referring to a March 6 press conference where Trump claimed anyone who wants a test, can get a test and then referred to the tests as “beautiful.”
“That’s not a medical term by the way. My constituents went to the get the test and there were none,” Lynch said. “The president said this in front of some of you at that press conference. And I saw no one step up and say the president wasn’t correct, the tests weren’t there, they’re not beautiful and they’re not available.”
Lynch asked officials to speak out when Trump sows confusion or makes “bizarre statements” like the one during the March 6 press conference, where he claimed his uncle John Trump’s experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1930s meant the president had a natural ability to figure out complex scientific problems.
“It has to raise some red flags,” Lynch said of the comment. “We need honesty here.”
When the hearing reconvenes Thursday, lawmakers will likely grill officials about the consumer costs for testing. In a preview of the fight ahead, Representative Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., asked Redfield on Wednesday if the CDC had any plans for drive-through testing, which has helped South Korea beat back the virus.
Redfield said no plans were in place and that the CDC was trying to “maintain the relationship between individuals and their health care providers.”
Silence washed over the room.
“That was an interesting answer. So, the professional monetary relationship comes before public health?” Cooper said.
Redfield maintained that in order to assess the virus risk appropriately and ensure people get the right care, the matter must be dealt with in a medical setting.
Fauci echoed this, saying money wasn’t a consideration “at all” but rather the goal is to get people who may be sick to call their physicians ahead of time and receive instructions on how to receive a test.
“It’s a relationship between the patient and the physician,” Fauci said.
But Cooper retorted, saying many Americans don’t have a primary care doctor.
“They rely on the emergency room,” he said.
In December, Harvard Medical School reported that between 2002 and 2015, the number of adults with a primary care doctor fell from 77 to 75%. The decline was steeper with adults in their 30s, where the rates dropped from 71% to 64%.
Following the committee hearing, Chairwoman Maloney issued a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf saying the department’s “well documented history” of failing to prevent the spread of disease like the common flu, mumps or chicken pox has raised major red flags for Congress as the coronavirus outbreak worsens.
The committee has given Wolf until March 18 to respond to their inquiry seeking information about the department’s virus mitigation and containment plans.