Officials Deny Influence From Trump on Easing Virus Testing

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci arrives Tuesday to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump has said otherwise, but the nation’s leading public health experts told Congress Tuesday that they have never been told by the White House to slow down testing for Covid-19.

“No, none of us have ever been told to slow down testing … that is just a fact,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, at a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on America’s response to the pandemic. 

Also called to testify were Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health for the Health and Human Services Department.

To a man, the officials said they experienced zero political pressure while working with the White House to coordinate its pandemic response.

Covid-19 cases have continued to climb in over 20 states, and, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center as of Tuesday, 2.3 million confirmed cases have been identified as the death toll tips over 120,000.

States like Arizona, Florida, Texas and Georgia have seen an uptick in cases of late with local health departments and officials regularly at odds with political leadership over how to broach reopening. In Texas, for example, Governor Greg Abbott refused to enforce mask-wearing requirements despite mayoral requests.

When the globe saw its single largest daily case increase just 24 hours ago, World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, offered a blunt assessment: “Politicization of the pandemic has exacerbated it.”

Those sentiments were echoed in questions from lawmakers during Tuesday’s hearing and underlined by Democrats left stunned by remarks the U.S. president made Saturday during a campaign rally in Tulsa.

Speaking to the crowd of about 6,200, where face masks were not mandatory, the president called testing a “double-edged sword” and repeated the logical fallacy that the country’s rising infection numbers are the result of more testing, even as hospitals are running out of beds for the influx of patients.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases,” he remarked. “So, I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”

Public health experts and lawmakers responded with alarm, saying the focus should be on rebounding from early missteps that handicapped the nation’s pandemic response — specifically testing delays and the president’s combative history with state governors seeking supplies, personal protective equipment or other resources to control outbreaks. 

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed Trump’s remarks as jest, but the president doubled down a day later, tweeting that testing “makes us look like we have more cases, especially proportionally, than other countries.”

Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo of California appeared exasperated with the administration saying that she could not understand how the CDC allowed the virus to become politicized.

“The American people are divided on this issue of the virus. Imagine that. I continue to urge you to speak out,” Ehoo said to Redfield. “You are a doctor. Put on your white jacket and speak weekly to the American people. They want to know what is coming. What is ahead. My constituents ask me on a consistent basis: ‘What’s next? What is our government doing?’ That is a haunting question.”

Eshoo told Redfield that Trump’s trip to Tulsa would have been the perfect time for him to issue a statement warning the public of possible health risks.

Redfield defended his performance as director but vowed to do more to disseminate information to the public in the future. The CDC has also fallen behind on reporting race, ethnicity and age demographics generally, and specifically too of those tested for Covid-19 in nursing homes. The agency only made that research a requirement for nursing homes in May, months after the outbreak first took hold.

Before, Redfield testified, it was merely “encouraged.”

In a few months, as summer’s end gives way to influenza season, Fauci, Redfield, Giroir and Hahn expressed concern about what “co-circulating” viruses will mean for the American public and its hospitals.

Redfield said the CDC is developing a single test that would identify influenza and Covid-19 simultaneously, making it easier to control the spread of both viruses.

Giroir, who is expected to leave his temporary post at the Federal Emergency Management Agency overseeing testing and PPE supply chain matters later this month, said the Trump administration is prepared to meet a significant resurgence of Covid-19 cases this fall. 

Some 140 million N95 masks are expected to be needed by then, and the administration expects to produce “180 million per month,” Giroir said.

Evading specifics on what a return to school would look like in August and September, Redfield called it imperative to focus for now on building out capacity for testing, tracing and isolation.

In January, the CDC had just 6,000 tracers on hand. At the start of this month, roughly 27,000 people were tapped to conduct contact tracing, or the process of finding out who an infected person might have exposed themselves to or where they have visited while sick. 

Ideally, Redfield said, by the fall the U.S. will have a fleet of 100,000 contact tracers.

For those eager to learn more about where the U.S. is heading in terms of a vaccine, Fauci offered continued cautious optimism.  He expects a vaccine to be ready by January 2021.

“Getting back to normality will be a gradual step by step process,” he said.

As for those who continue to go out in public without a mask, be they national leaders or protesters, the director had simple advice.

“You should not congregate in crowds. You should keep distance and even though many people for a variety of reasons do not listen to this suggestion not to congregate, some people are going to do that anyway. And if you do, please wear a mask. Avoid as best as possible the urge to pull your mask down and shout,” he said.

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