Federal health and science agency officials testified on the emerging omicron coronavirus variant and federal actions on Jan. 11 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The testimony followed related HELP Committee hearings on the country’s COVID-19 response [refer to Washington Highlights, May 14, July 23, and Nov. 5, 2021].
Committee members asked for updates on several issues including the availability of COVID-19 tests, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quarantine and isolation guidance, research into new vaccines and therapeutics, the domestic supply chain, and future preparedness.
In their opening statements, both Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) shared their concern about the lack of available COVID-19 tests, both rapid tests for home use and more accurate PCR tests available through community testing sites.
In her testimony, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell provided an update on the Biden administration’s plan to acquire tests for distribution for free. She stated that the purchase of 50 million tests is under contract, with the expectation that the remaining tests will be purchased in the coming days with distribution to begin in late January. President Joe Biden subsequently announced on Jan. 13 that the administration would purchase 1 billion tests for distribution, double the administration’s initial procurement plan.
In her opening statement, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, reiterated the CDC’s current guidelines for isolation and quarantine, for individuals who test positive or are exposed to an infected person, respectively. She added, “These recommendations are consistent with over 100 studies collected over the past two years indicating that people are most infectious during their first few days of infection. … A core part of CDC's mission is to translate science into recommendations for best practices and real-world circumstances.”
Burr expressed frustration during his opening statement about the messaging from the CDC on isolation and quarantine guidance, adding that he supports the science but is concerned about the administration’s communications strategy and resulting confusion on best practices in the public.
Members also asked about forthcoming preventive and treatment measures to continue responding to COVID-19. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, referenced the institute’s ongoing work to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine that would provide protection against newly emerging variants.
“We were very fortunate in that the basic research and clinical research investments that had been made literally for decades prior to the new revelation that we had a very threatening virus among us was the reason why we were able to use new platform technologies as well as immunogen design to get highly successful and safe vaccines,” Fauci reiterated.
Regarding protection conferred by the vaccines, Fauci added, “There's a 17 times greater chance of being hospitalized and a 20 times greater chance of dying if you are unvaccinated versus vaccinated.” Walensky also commented on increasing hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the omicron surge, including in children up to four years old, as well as the related staffing shortages in hospitals.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) discussed workforce shortages and her interest in including a provision to support the career paths of infectious disease clinicians and enhance preparedness in the committee’s pandemic preparedness bill, which Murray noted would be unveiled “soon.” Walensky said that there are an estimated 80,000 vacancies in the public health workforce, and additional efforts to expand jobs in public health labs, genomic surveillance, and disease outbreak investigations, is a “vital need.”
Members sought updates on the utilization of federal funds for viral surveillance and long-COVID-19 provided through the American Rescue Plan (P.L. 117-2) to combat the pandemic. Walensky highlighted the coronavirus sequencing efforts in partnership with academic labs and others, adding her hope to broaden the partnership beyond COVID-19 to other viruses. Baldwin pointed to the committee’s forthcoming preparedness legislation as an opportunity to build upon the investments. Fauci added that the American Rescue Plan investment has thus far funded over 100 researchers from 30 institutions to study long COVID-19.
Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) asked witnesses about plans to incorporate COVID-19 data into existing databases for other respiratory diseases. Walensky noted that this type of integration is a part of the CDC’s ongoing data modernization efforts, including collecting enhanced demographic data and creating better linkages with hospitals.