Senators vent frustration with senior officials over coronavirus testing shortfall

Senators vented their frustration to senior administration officials during a closed-door briefing Thursday morning over what lawmakers complain is a persistent shortage of coronavirus testing kits across the country and unreliable data on how fast the virus is spreading in the United States.

After Vice President Pence told GOP lawmakers at a private lunch meeting earlier in the week that millions of test kits would be made available at the end of the week, senators on Thursday complained to senior officials that the shortage of testing kits remains a major problem.

“There’s frustrations with the testing,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, as she left the meeting.

She said lawmakers also expressed frustration over the “accuracy” of the data on “people infected” around the country.

Capito said she and colleagues are frustrated the testing “is just not widespread enough” and “not comprehensive enough.”

“What do you tell your constituents? That’s where we are,” she said.

Senior administration officials warned senators that it will be difficult to distribute enough testing kits because of supply chain problems, highlighting the fact that the kits are primarily manufactured overseas.

“We are going to have — and I suspect are having, and I think they alluded to it in there — a supply chain problem,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“We’re going to have supply chain problems for two reasons. The first is these things are primarily made outside the United States and either those supplies are being disrupted by factory shutdowns, like in China, or the countries who make them are hoarding them, like India or South Korea,” he said.

“I believe that’s going to be an issue that is impeding faster deployment of these tests,” Rubio added.

Senators attended the nearly hourlong briefing in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee room with several senior administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, also attended.

Rubio said his colleagues are frustrated over a lack of concrete information on the extent of infections in the United States.

“I think people are frustrated,” he said. “We all want a date. We all want to be told by Friday there will be 10 million tests available. The problem is they can’t tell us that.”

Senators are on high alert after a staffer in Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) tested positive Wednesday for the coronavirus.

Cantwell has closed her Washington, D.C., office for the rest of the week for deep cleaning.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who said his staff was in contact with Cantwell’s staff, said he will ask his aides to telecommute on Friday.

“We’re concerned about it. I think anyone who feels who needs to be tested should be tested immediately,” he said.

“We’re going to try tomorrow, we’re going to try telecommut[ing]” he added. “We’re going to see how that works tomorrow so we don’t put any of our employees in danger.”

Yet, Manchin said “we should do everything we can to make sure we keep this government working.”

“We should not shut the government down in any way, shape or form,” he added.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also told reporters that he will ask his staff to begin teleworking.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he will continue his regular D.C. operations but is asking staff to be on alert for symptoms of coronavirus and to self-quarantine themselves immediately if they feel sick.

“I think any one individual should treat this with everything we’ve learned about it. If you show symptoms, isolate yourself. Do all the things that we’ve been hearing about. I’m washing my hands a lot more,” Braun said.

But some Senate staff have expressed concern about coming to work in the weeks ahead while the extent of the virus’s spread remains largely unknown.

“The Senate building is like a giant cruise ship with people coming in here from off the street,” said one concerned staffer.

Congressional leaders announced Thursday morning that the Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings will be closed to the public until April 1 because of the coronavirus but that official business will continue.

Tags Joe Manchin Marco Rubio Maria Cantwell Mike Braun Mike Pence Mitt Romney Shelley Moore Capito

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