Sen. Bob Casey. (Senate Democrats/Flickr)
WASHINGTON — U.S. senators want Trump administration officials to be more forthcoming about coronavirus amid concerns the White House has given misinformation on the disease.
A Senate panel with oversight on health issues heard from top public officials Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration.
“Our obligation is really simple here,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said at the hearing.
“Every one of us is charged with working constructively to at least do the following: slow the spread of the virus, support state and local preparedness efforts and provide complete and accurate, always, always accurate information to the public to address their concerns about this challenge.”
There had been no detected cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Pennsylvania as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Casey said the outbreak also highlights the risk of “junk plans” for health insurance that do not pay for testing and called on the administration to put tighter regulations on health care plans.
He and other congressional Democrats have railed against the Trump administration for allowing a proliferation of what critics call “junk” insurance plans that don’t provide the comprehensive coverage envisioned by the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.
The hearing on Capitol Hill comes amid increased frustration about whether the Trump administration has been forthcoming about the virus. President Donald Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead a coronavirus task force, but reports have indicated that the health officials may have to clear statements with Pence.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said the ongoing work on the vaccine is “literally the fastest ever done.”
Researchers have sequenced the virus and are working on a potential vaccine that could go into clinical trials. But even so, a vaccine would have to go in broad trials to make sure it would “do no harm” to healthy people that would be receiving it — which would take at least a year.
“When we hear talk about a vaccine is going to be ready in a couple of months — it won’t be ready to be deployed. That will take a while,” Fauci said.
“I do think it is worth saying that it is pretty extraordinary that we have to have our medical and health professionals counter a message from the president of the United States, that they have to spend their time trying to correct the record,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said.
‘Can the American people count on you?’
Public health officials warned Tuesday that the coronavirus, which is similar to the flu but has potential for greater effects on the lower respiratory system, continues to threaten public health.
“In just two months, the outbreak has grown from a cluster of pneumonia cases in China, in one city, to affecting over 70 countries and territories around the world with more than 90,000 cases and about 3,000 deaths,” Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Senate Tuesday.
“We are now, in the United States, seeing in addition to the small number of travel-related cases, we are seeing community transmission in a few areas and a tragic outbreak in a long-term care facility in Washington State.”
Community transmissions occur when a person gets the virus from an unknown source — when it can’t be traced directly back to contact with someone who is known to have the disease.
A federal Homeland Security facility in Washington State shut down during the course of the hearing because of concerns about the spread of the virus.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose home state has seen at least six deaths from the disease, told administration officials Tuesday that she’s “profoundly grateful for the work public health officials are doing,” but she’s “very frustrated about the steps the president is taking, downplaying the seriousness of this disease and appointing a politician to lead the task force.”
Murray added, “I think it is important right now that people can trust the information they are hearing,” noting concerns that Trump “has made statements contradicting all of you. Yes or no: can the American people count on you to be 100 percent transparent, even if you have to contradict a tweet or something?”
Each of the public health officials answered yes.
Republicans on the committee said the issue should not be political, but they also called on officials to be up front with the public.
“Our first goal of the hearing is to provide the American people with accurate information from respected professionals,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate committee.
Pence gave lawmakers an update on the virus Tuesday at their closed-door party lunches in the U.S. Capitol. The House and Senate are each working on emergency response bills that would allocate billions of additional dollars for research and treatment of the disease.
Trump also spoke about the virus Tuesday at a National Association of Counties’ conference in Washington, D.C., and at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md.
“We’re really working hard on it,” he said, according to CBS news. “Six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, you never heard of this. All of a sudden it’s got the world aflutter … things happen that you never would even think would happen.”
Although there have been no detected cases of COVID-19 yet in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Health, state officials are gearing up for that possibility.
During a briefing last week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the state is preparing for the “community spread” of the illness and monitoring people who have returned from China, WITF-FM reported.
Levine is scheduled to speak about response to the virus in Washington, D.C., on Friday at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.
Meanwhile, the state Senate’s top Democrat is pushing for a legislative response.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, says the state Legislature should act on his bill authorizing the creation of a public health emergency declaration, which would be similar to declarations now used for natural disasters.
The state Senate has already passed the bill, and it has been sitting in the House Health Committee since last summer. Costa sent letters to House leaders last week urging them to take up the bill.
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