WASHINGTON — The Biden administration isn’t doing enough to increase availability of COVID-19 tests, senators told federal health officials Tuesday.

“Testing’s broken,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, said during a committee hearing on addressing new COVID-19 variants. When it comes to battling the pandemic, “we’re here to support [you]; what you need, tell us. But don’t think we’re just going to sit here and print money without a full accountability of where it has gone.”

Burr noted that he and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) had asked the administration for a full, audited account of how it had spent the more than $80 billion Congress had given it toward COVID testing, “and we’ll entertain additional funding for testing. That was 10 days ago; I’m not sure when we’re going to get it or if we’re going to get it … There’s got to be accountability.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) directed several questions about that funding to Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services. “Has any of this funding been diverted for other purposes?” she asked.

O’Connell listed some of the ways the funding was used, including $10 billion for COVID testing at schools and $4.5 billion for obtaining some of the 500 million tests the administration is planning to send to people at their homes. She noted that some of the money was being used for mitigation efforts, including testing unaccompanied minors coming in at the southern border and then separating those who test positive from those who test negative.

Collins was not satisfied by O’Connell’s answer, and drilled down during a second round of questioning, asking how much of the money was used on mitigation efforts at the southern U.S. border. She also criticized the Biden administration for toning down its testing requests last year, noting that the Abbott Laboratories test manufacturing plant in her state ended up laying off 400 workers because of a drop-off in the COVID testing business. “That seems very shortsighted,” she said.

Isolation Guidance Confusing

Committee chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she had heard from many constituents how difficult it is to find tests. “I’ve heard from so many people who are waiting in long lines and going from pharmacy to pharmacy trying to find a test, or who are giving up on getting tested because tests are unavailable or cost too much,” she said.

In addition, “I’ve also heard from people who have found the communication about new isolation and quarantine guidance confusing and frustrating,” said Murray. “I’m hearing more and more questions like ‘What kind of test should I get?’ ‘When should I get tested?’ ‘Why can’t I find a test?’ ‘Do I need to isolate 10 days, 5 days, or even at all?'”

Hearing witness Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, tried to clarify her agency’s guidance on that issue during her opening testimony. “For people who tested positive for COVID-19. CDC recommends isolation for 5 days,” she said. “If you are asymptomatic or if your symptoms are resolving — for example, you’re without a fever for 24 hours — you no longer need to isolate. However, you should continue to wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others, including at home and in public, for an additional 5 days. We recommend that you avoid activities where you’re unable to wear a mask, and that you avoid travel for the full 10 days.”

Long COVID a Concern

The hearing covered a variety of topics. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked witness Anthony Fauci, MD, President Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the status of research into long COVID. Fauci cited one recent study still in the preprint stage; “it was an autopsy study in people who had varying levels of COVID,” from mild to moderate.

“There seems to be a persistence in multiple organ systems indicating that even if you clear the virus, one of the possibilities … is that you don’t completely clear the fragments of the virus and you have continual stimulation — not that you’re infectious or that you’re going to infect anybody else, but that it is still generating perhaps an aberrant response in your immune system,” Fauci said.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) had a broader comment about the administration’s overall strategy for fighting the pandemic. “Unfortunately, the administration has chosen to put all its eggs in one basket and prioritize unconstitutional vaccine mandates and testing, yet comparing 2021 to 2022, COVID infections have increased 72% and deaths increased 27%,” he said. “We can’t keep throwing good money after bad money. This is insanity. We have to admit our mistakes and go a different direction.” Marshall urged the administration to focus more on therapeutics.

Question About Data Tracking

Other committee members had more positive thoughts. “I do want to point out how much I personally respect you individually and professionally for the work you do,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “You are scientists, not politicians. Nevertheless, you are being made subject to the political whims of various political individuals and that comes at a high cost.” Although health officials are working hard, “that doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes; it doesn’t mean that there won’t be changes from time to time. Sometimes as data comes in, it’s different than what you had anticipated.”

Romney asked Walensky why the CDC’s Covid Tracker data hadn’t been updated since November 20. “We update that about once a month and it’s about 3 or 4 weeks in arrears,” Walensky said. “So in mid-January, we’ll be having data through the end of December and it simply does take that long for our jurisdictions to compile those data.”

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) argued for a change in the way the administration approached the pandemic. “Everybody talks about data, paying attention to the data,” he said, adding that “you don’t want to have the legacy of being a country in disruption, and full of anxiety.” Braun appeared to suggest that the country should focus on mitigating the virus threat mainly for elderly people and those with comorbidities.

Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD, said that “right now, we need to focus on continuity of operations for hospitals and other essential services as this variant sweeps through the population … I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is that most people are going to get COVID, and what we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function and transportation and other essential services are not disrupted while this happens. After that will be a good time to reassess how we’re approaching this pandemic.”

  • author['full_name']

    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *