Federal government struggles to handle outbreak

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies about Coronavirus, COVID-19, during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 3, 2020.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Congress is looking for answers on how to respond to the coronavirus. The administration is short on them. And it all adds up to a massive federal government working to solve a problem it doesn’t quite understand.

This notion was clear as U.S. health officials leading the coronavirus response were grilled Tuesday in a hearing on the illness held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. 

Questions ranged from how quickly the U.S. will be able to deploy a vaccine (answer: that will take a while), what percentage of people traveling from Canada are being screened for the virus (unclear) and how far germs from the virus spread on a plane (a few rows). Most of the testimony was caveated, and some of it was met with skepticism. 

“Do you really believe that one million tests will be available by the end of this week?” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn. Hahn had said in prepared remarks at the onset of the hearing that the administration would be able to achieve that objective.

Murray, whose state has seen nine people die from the illness, is one of many lawmakers who blamed limited testing supplies on allowing the illness to proliferate. 

In response to Murray, Hahn later clarified he expects “up to a million tests.” He walked the panel through what would need to happen to achieve that goal. 

“The company we are working with this have the capacity to develop enough test kits to send out … and this is a dynamic process — every day I’m hearing from different manufacturers that they can do this — 2,500 test kits by the end of the week. That should give us the capacity in hands of laboratories — once they validate — to perform up to a million tests,” he said. 

Lawmakers pressed the officials about the potential of drug shortages, given the large portion of the country’s supply chain coming from overseas. Hahn said he did not know whether India’s decision earlier in the day to limit 10% of its export capacity affected the U.S. supply chain, including essential drugs. 

And when asked whether, as President Donald Trump has implied, the outbreak may dampen with warmer weather, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, simply said he did not know. 

“This could happen,” said Fauci. 

“But we don’t know it. And the reason we don’t know it is because this is a brand new virus with which we have no experience. So even though the concept that when warm weather comes, many respiratory viruses diminish, we have no guarantee at all that this is going to happen with this virus,” he said.

“It is conceivable, given the degree of and the efficiency of transmissibility of this virus, that we might have a cycle, it may come, and be seasonal, that’s quite possible. We don’t know that — but it’s possible.”

World health officials proclaimed Tuesday the mortality rate for coronavirus is higher than originally expected, telling the public we are in “uncharted territory.”

Growing frustration

With more questions than answers, Congress carried forward Tuesday hoping to offer solutions.

Its nearest hopes lie in an emergency spending package to provide federal and state agencies the funding they need to grapple with the crisis. But promises that a package would be delivered by Tuesday morning dragged into assurances it would come by Tuesday night. 

The normal legislative bartering is complicated by more unpredictable elements lawmakers are trying to navigate, such as ensuring each state has enough money to either fight or tackle the outbreak, without yet knowing how severe the outbreak will be in each state. 

As Congress waits for the funds, frustration was most acute for lawmakers whose districts are already affected by the disease. 

That includes lawmakers from California, who have been pushing the heads of U.S. Health and Human Services to give more information about a whistleblower report alleging that at least a dozen federal workers sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California to help quarantined evacuees did not have the necessary protective gear or training. 

Reps. Mark Takano, John Garamendi and Scott Peters, all D-Calif., late last month called on HHS to further brief them and demanded more information on the allegations. 

In an email to Congress sent last month, and obtained by CNBC, leaders from HHS said it is “conducting an ongoing, comprehensive internal investigation in response to the whistleblower’s claims,” a situation it is handling with “grave urgency.”

“HHS will fully brief Congress and the public when it has completed its investigation,” the email said.

Until then, Congress, and the public, will have to wait. 

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