Experts tell coronavirus panel that more testing needed to reopen US
Health experts told members of Congress on Wednesday that states need more help from the federal government on coronavirus testing in order to safely reopen the economy.
In the first hearing of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, experts cautioned that reopening the country prematurely could lead to needless deaths from the disease.
“It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown. We must not make the same mistakes again as we open up our nation,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told lawmakers.
Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner under President Trump, told lawmakers that a “phased” reopening of the country is needed to mitigate the risk of a new epidemic.
“We’ve seen signs of a slowing epidemic nationally but we’re still going to be reopening against the backdrop of more spread than we anticipated,” he said.
“We need to make sure we get testing out widely and get testing, most of all, for the people who are at highest risk of this virus,” he said, adding that some people are at greater risk of exposure because of where they work or where they live.
Republicans on the committee broadly pushed back against Wednesday’s hearing and the panel itself, arguing that it is intended as a partisan attack on Trump.
“It is a committee designed to go after the president,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who called Jha’s comments about testing “political.”
“I thought the shutdown was initiated to bend the curve so our health care system wasn’t overwhelmed?” he added.
Jha replied that “every expert on the left, right and center agrees we had to shut our economy because the outbreak got too big because we didn’t have a testing infrastructure that allowed us to put our arms around the outbreak.
“Testing was the fundamental failure that forced our country to shut down.”
Faulty tests developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) delayed testing in the U.S. by weeks at the onset of the outbreak. Commercial labs significantly increased testing capacity in the U.S., but not before the virus began spreading rapidly.
Even as testing has expanded, far more tests are needed to reopen the economy safely, Jha said. His institute estimates the U.S. needs to run at least 900,000 tests a week, while the country is only running a third of that now.
Testing still varies widely by state. The Trump administration has left it up to states to develop their own testing strategies, but more guidance is needed to ensure the right people get tested at the right time, Jha said.
“While states have a critical role, I believe we need federal leadership,” he said.
The federal government also needs to use “all of its power” to address supply chain shortages of materials needed to complete tests, Jha said.
While Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to encourage the production of millions of swabs used to collect patient specimens, there are still shortages of personal protective equipment, chemicals that are needed to process the tests and transport media.