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Biden health officials grilled over state of pandemic

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/12/2022 Felicia Sonmez, Lena H. Sun, Rachel Roubein, Salvador Rizzo
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A top Biden administration health official delivered a stark assessment on the state of the pandemic Tuesday: “Most people are going to get covid.”

The remark from Janet Woodcock, acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, came during a Senate hearing where lawmakers of both parties delivered withering critiques that conveyed the frustration, exhaustion and uncertainty felt by many around the country as the pandemic enters its third year.

It also came on a day of record hospitalizations in the United States as some public health experts press for a revamped strategy to the White House’s pandemic response — one that focuses on living with the virus, while working to stem its surges. Last week, six former health advisers to President Biden’s transition team released journal articles outlining a strategy for a “new normal.”

“I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get covid, all right?” Woodcock said in response to questioning from Sen. Mike Braun during Tuesday’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.

Woodcock recommended staying the course until the omicron variant wave wanes.

“What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function — transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens. I think after that will be a good time to reassess how we’re approaching this pandemic,” she said.

Braun, a Republican from Indiana, had pushed Woodcock on whether the federal government needs to change its approach or reshuffle its leadership, similar to how a private company might fire its CEO for not delivering results.

He said he saw no signs of that and accused the Biden administration of “doubling down on what now for two years has arguably not gotten us in a place where we feel better about it, where we’re not drowning in anxiety.”

The grilling of Biden health officials in a nearly four-hour hearing occurred as the United States surpassed its previous record for coronavirus hospitalizations, with nearly 146,000 patients crowding the nation’s hospitals and covid deaths averaging around 1,640 to 1,650 a day, up from an average of 1,048 on Dec. 1.

In their first appearance before Congress since the omicron variant began its U.S. rampage, federal health officials faced tough questions about confusing federal guidance about what people should do to avoid spreading the virus and frustration over the scarcity of at-home rapid tests.

The committee’s chair, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), emphasized the uncertainty that many Americans feel in the face of a constantly mutating virus.

“Nearly two years into this pandemic, people are exhausted after all we have been through,” Murray said. “People back in my home state of Washington and across the country are frustrated and worried about the course of this pandemic and its persistent challenges, like how hard it still is to get a test.”

Panel members of both parties said they are anxiously awaiting details on Biden’s plan to send 500 million free, at-home rapid tests to Americans.

The administration will begin shipping those tests at the end of this month, said Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Health and Human Services Department. She said the administration has completed four contracts so far, procured 50 million tests and is in the process of securing the additional tests over the next several days.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R- Alaska) said: “It says a lot about 2021 when the most appreciated gift under the Christmas tree in our family was covid kits for everybody. I’m still getting ‘thank you’s’ for those.”

The Washington Post previously reported that a group of Biden health agency officials approached the White House last spring, urging it to purchase millions of the rapid tests, according to five senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions. They warned that without doing so, the kits would remain hard to find and exorbitantly priced.

But White House officials never followed up on the proposal amid signs that the pandemic was in retreat. Back then, they were focused on vaccination as the path forward and believed that breakthrough infections were rare in vaccinated people — a notion that the delta variant would turn on its head. Administration officials also thought the price of the tests was too high and feared such a purchase would lock other manufacturers out of the market.

Senators on Tuesday also voiced confusion over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance that shortened the length of time that infected people without symptoms or those with resolving symptoms need to isolate from other people. The guidance — which was announced late last month and updated last week — opened a floodgate of criticism from some public health experts who questioned why the agency did not recommend a negative coronavirus test result before people come out of isolation.

Officials were also asked about the nation’s supply of the higher-quality N95 masks, as health officials consider recommending that people opt for N95 or KN95 masks worn by health-care personnel, instead of cloth masks, if they can do so consistently.

Experts have repeatedly urged the Biden administration to follow the lead of many countries in Europe and Asia and recommend the better-quality masks to protect against an airborne virus, and to underscore the importance of masking.

O’Connell said Tuesday the national stockpile has ample supply of such masks — 747 million N95s, or more than 59 times the pre-pandemic levels. The government hopes to award more contracts to U.S. companies to manufacture 141 million masks a month at surge capacity, she said.

The most heated exchanges of the hearing came as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) lashed out at Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser on the coronavirus. Marshall falsely claimed Fauci is not making available his annual financial disclosure form as a member of the federal government, accusing “the Big Tech giants” of “doing an incredible job of keeping it from being public.”

An incredulous Fauci replied: “All you have to do is ask for it. You’re so misinformed, it’s extraordinary.”

Moments later, Fauci could be heard muttering near an open microphone, “What a moron. Jesus Christ.”

After Paul falsely accused Fauci of trying to smear academics who urged the government to keep society open to promote herd immunity, Fauci shot back that Paul was raising campaign funds off such accusations that have led to threats on Fauci’s life.

Fauci called Paul’s repeated attacks a distortion of reality and cited the arrest of a California man in Iowa last month who police said was traveling to Washington with an assault rifle and multiple magazines of ammunition. The man had a “hit list” including Fauci and several others, mostly Democratic politicians and officials.

“What happens when [Paul] gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue?” Fauci said. “All of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have life — threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls because people are lying about me.”

“You are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain,” Fauci said.

Paul rejected the criticism, saying it was “disappointing for you to suggest that people who dare to question you are responsible somehow for violent threats.”

People comply with a new mask mandate at an indoor mall in lower Manhattan last month. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt/Getty Images People comply with a new mask mandate at an indoor mall in lower Manhattan last month. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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