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  • Washington Highlights

    Health Officials Testify on Administration’s COVID-19 Response

    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations
    Brett Roude, Legislative Analyst

    Four administration health officials appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on June 23 to testify on the administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The hearing focused on issues around preparing for a second wave of coronavirus infections, data collection, vaccine development, telehealth, and health disparities.

    Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) opened the hearing by saying, "We must learn from and correct the Administration's mistakes so that we are prepared to combat this disease as more outbreaks flare up this summer and a potential second wave comes in the fall."

    Chairman Pallone called on the Senate to take up the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (Heroes) Act, (H.R. 6800), which would provide $75 billion for the creation of a national testing strategy to allow the government to better detect where the virus is spreading [see Washington Highlights, May 15].

    Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) praised the administration's response, stating, "We have seen remarkable coordination, flexibility and cooperation between the executive branch, private sector, faith groups, volunteers, and lawmakers. America is strongest when we work together to achieve common goals."

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, MD, updated members on NIH's collaborative efforts to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, saying he was "cautiously optimistic" that a vaccine could be available later this year or early in 2021.

    "NIAID is supporting the development of several SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates, including vaccines based on platform technologies that have shown promise against the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS," he said.

    In his opening statement, Adm. Brett Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, announced a new cooperative agreement with the Morehouse School of Medicine to lead the initiative to coordinate a strategic network of national, state, territorial, tribal, and local organizations to deliver COVID-19-related information to communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

    When questioned by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) on the country’s SARS-CoV-2 current and future testing capacity, Adm. Giroir responded, “Right now we're doing about 15 million tests per month, although we have need for more testing. Our national positivity rate is about 6.5% … Right now, six or seven states are above 10%.”

    Adm. Giroir testified last month before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee that the country would be capable of 40 to 50 million tests per month by September [see Washington Highlights, May 15]. He told Energy and Commerce Committee members that was still the goal.

    In response to a question from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on the use of emergency use authorization (EUA) for a potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn MD, said, "[W]e will rely upon the science and data when it's available to us to make that adjudication and decision regarding a EUA."

    In response to a question from Rep. Walden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, MD, asked Congress for sustainable financial investment in public health agencies to prepare for a spike of COVID-19 cases in the fall and for future pandemics.

    Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) pressed Dr. Redfield on the CDC lacking ethnic and racial demographic data among those tested for COVID-19.

    He responded, "We're continuing to make progressive progress and to ensure that the requirement to include race and ethnicity issue on all tests admitted for COVID is completed … we're going to just continue to work with our state, local, territorial, and tribal leaders to get that accomplished as well as the laboratories and hospitals and long-term care facilities."

    Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) asked whether telehealth practices can be an effective tool in helping to promote or protect vulnerable individuals in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 or even in a future infectious disease pandemic.

    Adm. Giroir, Dr. Redfield, and Dr. Fauci all expressed support for the increased telehealth utilization during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as an interest in expanding telehealth utilization in the future to support a patient's long-term needs. 

    The four witnesses will return to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate HELP Committee on June 30 during a hearing, “COVID-19: Update on Progress Toward Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.”