Pence pressed over coronavirus response in testy Senate briefing

Senators pressed Vice President Pence in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday over the administration’s response to coronavirus, questioning the official charged with leading the administration’s response over a lack of testing for the virus.

Democratic senators in particular asked sharp questions of Pence and administration health officials during a visit to their lunch meeting.

Some Republican senators, in addition, said they shared growing concerns among Democrats and experts that there are not enough tests being made available, hindering the ability of officials to know how widespread the virus is within the United States.

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The administration officials’ trip to Capitol Hill came as Washington state announced three more deaths from the virus as it continues to spread, bringing the total of U.S. deaths to nine.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn told GOP senators, repeating his public comments, that up to a million tests will be available by the end of the week. But some senators, as well as some public health experts, have expressed skepticism of that total. 

In the Democratic lunch, Sens. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellReal relief from high gas prices GOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority Scott says he will block nominees until Biden officials testify on supply chain crisis MORE, who represent Washington state, which is at the center of the spread of the virus in the U.S., took a lead role in questioning Pence.

Cantwell asked the vice president, who is leading the administration’s response, about the lack of tests available.

“They keep throwing out numbers like millions of tests and we’re saying, ‘that’s not right,’” Cantwell told reporters afterward. “Millions of tests aren’t available right this second. People are calling their doctors and they’re not being able to get tests.”

Pence responded by saying that the FDA took steps over the weekend to allow academic and commercial labs to test, expanding the sources of testing, Cantwell said.

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The administration has faced criticism for not ramping up testing quickly enough. It has also been criticized over problems with the tests that prevented some of them from working, and for its initial imposition of strict criteria on who could get testing.

Those criteria have now been loosened and officials say more tests are being sent out.

President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE traveled to the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday in a public show of support for the researchers there.

During the trip, Trump backed off the idea of closing the southern border because of the virus. “We’re not looking at it very strongly,” Trump said. “I don’t think we’ve seen any great evidence that that area’s a problem at this moment.”

Democrats said the administration’s response is unorganized.

“They’re scrambling,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill MORE (D-Mich.), adding that Pence said he “realized that was a concern” when asked about the lack of testing.

Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidySunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist Legislators look to expand health care access through telehealth, biosimilars Infrastructure deal is proof that Congress can still do good, bipartisan work MORE (R-La.) said that among Republican senators as well there was “a lot of concern about the testing.”

“Our capacity is not where it needs to be right now,” added Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors MORE (R-Fla.), though he noted that officials are ramping up their efforts on testing.

Experts say the virus could have been circulating in the United States for weeks undetected because a lack of tests meant it simply was not discovered.

Senators said worried constituents, particularly in Washington state, have been trying to get tested but are being met with confusion and a lack of clear answers.

“They didn’t have the answers we needed,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Progressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the meeting. “The biggest question: testing. When and where? They could not answer how soon people would be able to get the tests.”

“We need to know where people can get it, how people can get it and we need to make sure it’s not so costly that people don’t get it,” Schumer added. “And there were no answers to those vital questions.”

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Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the administration’s estimate of one million tests available by the end of the week is “overly optimistic.”

“Some U.S. states still don’t have testing capabilities,” she said. “They are working on it, but it will take time.”

Health officials say that about 80 percent of people who get the virus do not require hospitalization, and that the greatest risk is for elderly people and those with underlying health conditions. 

Democratic senators raised concern that Trump has publicly downplayed the threat in a misleading way.

“The administration on a whole has denied this is happening,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (D-Mont.). “There’s not enough test kits, we don’t know how wide it is because the president dropped the ball early.”

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to discuss the criticism of the strict criteria for testing that the agency initially had.

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“What we really need to focus on now is where we are today,” she said.

Murray also pressed officials at a hearing earlier on Tuesday.

“I have people in my state who may have been exposed,” she said. “They cannot get answers about where to go, and health officials are telling us that they fear that this virus has been circulating for weeks undetected. We need to get these tests out. People need to know answers.”

Nathaniel Weixel, Jessie Hellmann, Jordain Carney and Brett Samuels contributed.