Federal Officials Point to Underfunding, Lockdown Avoidance for Coronavirus Failings
Anthony Fauci and other agency leaders push back on allegations the federal government hasn’t done enough to confront the pandemic.
Federal public health officials on Friday defended the actions their agencies have taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, pushing back on allegations the Trump administration has dragged its feet in confronting the pandemic.
Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis repeatedly needled officials for the Trump administration's failure to develop a national, comprehensive plan for responding to the outbreak, saying it has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. While in several instances federal agency leaders testifying at the hearing rebuked false comments repeated by President Trump, they stressed that they and their expert employees had been given the freedom to do their jobs.
One notable exception came as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said he had no advanced knowledge of the decision to require hospitals to report their coronavirus data to a private contractor through the Health and Human Services Department, instead of CDC directly.
The agency “wasn’t involved in the decision,” Redfield said. “I was told once the [HHS] Secretary [Alex Azar]’s office made the decision that that was the decision.”
HHS has said the change would lead to better data management and increased reporting, though critics have said CDC is better positioned for transparent and nonpartisan recordkeeping.
Redfield said his agency does have a “comprehensive response” to the pandemic, highlighting CDC’s work assisting counterparts in more than 60 countries, obligating $12 billion to help states ramp up contact tracing, coordinating AmeriCorps and 300 of its own staff to assist state and local governments and other steps. Where there have been shortfalls, Redfield pointed to a long-running trend in failure to properly fund public health agencies at the federal level.
“The core capabilities have not been invested in over the last five decades,” Refield said, later adding, “Clearly we were handicapped when this outbreak started.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of heath at HHS, also praised the work of his department and, in particular, the U.S. Public Health Service that he leads. While the Trump administration has faced significant criticism for allowing a patchwork of responses in each state across the country, Giroir said the federal coordination has been significant.
“This has always been a collaborative relationship,” he said. “We do not defer everything to the state. If we did, I would not be spending 24/7 with a team of 50 people since March 12.”
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., however, who chairs the panel that held Friday’s hearing, said there is “still no strategy.”
“Regrettably, nearly six months after this virus clinches its first American life, the federal government has still not developed and implemented a national strategy to protect the American people,” Clyburn said. Absent “drastic changes,” he added, the country is likely to double the current 150,000 coronavirus death toll in the coming months.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said his agency has overseen a record-setting pace toward developing therapeutics and a vaccine. NIAID has removed red tape at each step, he said, allowing drug companies to move quickly into late phases of trials for vaccine candidates. He emphasized the approach has not compromised safety, nor did it equate to cutting corners.
As part of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, the administration's public-private partnership effort to develop a vaccine, HHS announced on Friday it had signed a $2.1 billion contract with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline to develop trials and possible distribution of 100 million doses of a potential vaccine. The Trump administration has already signed contracts with other companies, with public health officials stressing the government is looking to take on the financial risk involved with vaccine development. Fauci said NIAID and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority have worked directly with companies like Moderna on those efforts and reiterated he was “cautiously optimistic” a candidate could prove effective by the end of the year.
Fauci and his colleagues stressed the importance of Americans following personal hygiene recommendations and universal mask wearing. Cases in Europe have plummeted and remained low because lockdowns there led to 95% participation, whereas in the United States that rate was around 50%, he said.
Republicans on the panel focused their questions on the negative impacts of lockdowns, including business closures, upticks in substance abuse and underreporting of child abuse. Among the panelists, CDC’s Redfield in particular emphasized the importance of schools opening this fall. Giroir highlighted his office’s work in ensuring schools can reopen safely, including surveillance testing on college campuses and, potentially, K-12 institutions.