House Hearing on Need for Coronavirus Plan Full of Controversy

WASHINGTON — Discussions were heated on Friday at a House hearing on the idea of a comprehensive national plan to combat COVID-19.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), ranking member of the House Oversight & Reform Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, took issue right off the bat with the name of the hearing, which was entitled, “The Urgent Need for a National Plan to Contain the Coronavirus.” “That’s not the title of a hearing — that’s a political narrative,” he said.

Scalise then held up a pile of documents that he said was a copy of the Trump administration’s plan to contain the virus. “You wouldn’t even be here today if there wasn’t a plan, because you’re tasked with carrying out the plan,” he said to the witnesses at the hearing.

But Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) disagreed. “A stack of paper is not a plan,” he said. “A plan is a comprehensive and coordinated strategy for victory, and we haven’t seen anything like a plan. Blaming other countries is not a plan. Blaming China is not a plan.”

Clyburn Pans Administration Approach

Subcommittee chairman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) opened the hearing with some statistics. “It took nearly 3 months for the U.S. to go from one infection to one million. Now we’re at four million,” he said. “Hospitalizations and deaths are unacceptably high. Hospitals in some states are at risk of running out of beds, and some hospitals have reported that they may be forced to choose which to treat and which to send home to die. On our current course, experts predict another 150,000 could lose their lives from the coronavirus by the end of the year.”

Clyburn then panned the Trump administration’s actions so far. “Regrettably, nearly 6 months since the crisis claimed its first American life, the federal government has still not developed and implemented a national strategy to protect the American people,” he said. “Since the earliest days of this crisis, the administration refused to call on Americans to take simple steps to stay safe, like wearing masks and social distancing. Instead the president has downplayed the severity of the crisis, saying it would disappear, and sidelined government experts who disagree.”

“The administration’s approach of deferring to states, sidelining experts, and rushing to reopen has prolonged the virus and led to thousands of preventable deaths,” he continued. “In fact, the United States response stands out as among the worst of any country in the world. My question is, where do we go from here? I’m calling for the administration to finally give America a comprehensive national plan to prioritize science over politics, including buying and distributing enough tests and protective gear for every American who needs them … We do not need to lose another 150,000 American lives, but if we do not make drastic changes now, this tragic outcome is well within the realm of possibility.”

Scalise Urges School Reopening

For his part, Scalise talked about the need to reopen schools, citing guidance issued on the subject by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “There’s so much damage being done to our children” who aren’t getting the benefits of being in school, he said. “Those school systems have to get it right. There’s money still available in every state for sanitizer, for masks, for all the things you need to safely reopen. It’s not about the money, it’s about the will and desire to do it.”

Clyburn asked witness Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, why the U.S. has not done as well as other countries in slowing the virus. “The answer is complex,” Fauci said. “If you look at what happened in Europe, when they shut down or locked down, they did it to the tune of 95% plus … When you look at what we did, we really functionally shut down only about 50%, which means when we reached our peak, as they did — they came down to a low baseline, but we came up, down, and then plateaued at about 20,000 cases a day.”

Part of the issue, he continued, was that when it came to reopening, “some states did it very well and some states did not … We put out the guidelines of the gateway — Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3 — some states followed them very carefully and some were not, and in those cases where they were not, that led to surging” in cases.

Subcommittee member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had another question for Fauci: “Does protesting increase the spread of the virus?” Fauci responded that any gathering of a crowd could contribute to the spread of the virus, but Jordan wanted to know specifically about protests, noting that some states had barred churches from holding in-person services while protests were continuing. “Is there a world where the Constitution says you can favor one First Amendment liberty over another?” Jordan said.

Fauci declined to comment on the First Amendment issue. “I’m just making a broad statement to avoid crowds of any type no matter where you are,” he said. “I don’t judge one crowd versus another crowd … I’m not going to opine on limiting anything; I’m telling you what is the danger and you can make your own conclusion about that.”

Questions About Test Turnaround

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) was concerned about delays in COVID-19 test results. “In Arizona, the test positivity rate is over 20%, but test results there have been delayed by up to 15 days. In Florida, many hospitals in the state are near or at capacity, but results can take over a week,” she said, and asked Fauci what the consequences of the delays were.

“That is a delay that would interfere with effective contact tracing, and we’re trying to decrease that,” he said.

Adm. Brett Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that half of tests are done either at the point of care or at hospitals, “which are pretty rapid,” and that current data from commercial labs shows that 59% of tests are reported within 3 days and 76% within 5 days, although there are likely outliers. Velázquez responded that this was not what she had been hearing and added that “testing, contact tracing, and isolation are not effective unless we cut the turnaround time for tests.”

Several Republicans on the subcommittee expressed concerns about China’s role in downplaying the virus and potentially increasing its spread as a result. Rep. Mark Green, MD (R-Tenn.), said the subcommittee was failing “to look at the real culprit. Columbia University found that 66% of American deaths could have been prevented if China had spoken up 1 week earlier” about the virus, he said.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) kept pressing for the subcommittee chairman to agree to hold hearings on China’s role in the pandemic, but both times she asked, Clyburn was temporarily away and the subcommittee member filling in for him said the issue would have to be referred to him.

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    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