Republican U.S. senators took aim at the Biden administration’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 epidemic during a Thursday hearing, criticizing the new mandate on vaccinations and blaming federal policies for shortages of therapeutics, testing and other critical materials.
“Cases and hospitalization rates are down in the U.S., but this Administration cannot declare victory prematurely again, like they did this summer. That mistake only brought us to the place we are today – with shortages of tests and therapeutics, and a continued lag in extremely important data about the disease,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which sponsored the hearing on next steps for the COVID-19 response.
“North Carolinians are also calling my office desperate for help in accessing therapeutics, and even with new announcements of an oral therapeutic, Americans are waiting for these drugs. This Administration bears 100 percent of the responsibility for the lack of testing and lack of therapeutics. You got complacent and you let your foot off the gas. You didn’t order enough tests, you didn’t purchase enough therapeutics, and now you are rationing what we do have.”
“Most importantly, we need strong leadership. We need a nominee for FDA commissioner, and this administration cannot drag its feet on a new leader for the NIH. Both nominees will have challenging missions to complete under difficult circumstances and nearly impossible shoes to fill,” said Burr. “Testing was a success until the Biden administration turned it into a failure.”
Burr and other Republican members of the panel criticized the Biden administration’s newly announced vaccine mandate, requiring workers at businesses with more than 100 employees to get vaccinated by Jan. 4 or face regular testing for COVID-19, and begin wearing a mask by Dec. 5.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), said mandates like the new one announced Thursday “are causing extraordinary problems in the workforce in my state,” and asked for more information on the latest requirement from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), asked the witnesses whether they believe mandates save lives and whether there are any estimates as to how many lives mandates, like vaccinations and masks, will save.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), assured Romney that mandates save lives and pointed to recent vaccine mandates at employers like United Airlines, but said there are no estimates for how many lives mandates may save.
Several witnesses during Thursday’s hearing, which also included Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), acknowledged the shortage of critical therapeutics and testing equipment and said the agencies were working to alleviate the problems.
O’Connell said ASPR has been working to expand its efforts to acquire and supply diagnostics, vaccine doses and testing materials. The agency, O’Connell told the senators, has invested more than $3 billion in efforts to bring diagnostic test kits to the public and has plans to quadruple the number of at-home tests available to the public by December.
O’Connell also testified ASPR is working to supplement the efforts by local health care workers and hospitals that are being overwhelmed by the still growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, sending 27 teams of ASPR workers, totaling more than 600 personnel, to hospitals in 12 states. “And we’re continuing to look for long-term ways to help local healthcare workers who are being burned out by COVID cases,” she said.
ASPR is also working on a pilot program in eight states that is developing a rapid at-home test for COVID-19 and is planning to scale up the project by Thanksgiving,” O’Connell told the senators.
O’Connell responded to a question by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), about the availability of at-home test kits in her state. O’Connell said Abbott Labs has notified her that 60,000 at-home tests will be available in New Hampshire by Christmas.
Several Republican senators repeated their assault on Fauci, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) continuing to insist Fauci lied to the senators about possible NIH funding for laboratory work at the Wuhan Virology Laboratory, which Rand and other Republican senators insist was responsible for the creation of COVID-19. Paul repeated his call for Fauci to resign. But Fauci continued to deny he misled senators and insisted that research has shown the virus did not originate in a lab. The overwhelming evidence says it is not a laboratory leak, said Fauci. “Any card-carrying molecular biologist will tell you the viruses studied at the Wuhan lab could not have resulted in (COVID-19),” Fauci said.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), suggested Fauci and NIH have not been completely transparent on information it has on the origins of COVID-19 and asked Fauci to commit to complete disclosure. He said he will commit to releasing anything that is legally under his control. “I am all for that,” Fauci pledged.
Several senators asked the panelists whether natural immunity will serve communities as well as vaccines. All four panelists agreed that vaccinations are the most effective path to immunity. Walensky said there is growing data on immunity and infections for vaccinated individuals but the data for unvaccinated is “murkier” and the CDC is still recommending people get a vaccine.
Fauci told the senators the effectiveness of vaccinations wanes over time and he and his cohorts recommended booster shots. Eligible individuals may choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose.
FDA’s Woodcock noted the agency recently approved vaccines for young people ages 5-11 and she recommended they obtain a shot. FDA also approved at-home tests without a prescription last month. Additionally, they hope to approve more therapeutics “soon,” she said.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chair of the committee, said preventative measures like vaccines and masks are critical to protecting not only kids, but also their teachers and healthcare workers.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), said he contracted COVID-19 months ago but still feels a lingering “tingling” in his limbs. Fauci told him health professionals are still studying the effects of “long COVID” or lingering side effects. NIH has funded studies on long COVID at the NYU Langone Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mayo Clinic, according to Fauci.