Trump health officials to testify on continued dangers of coronavirus pandemic

Trump health officials to testify on continued dangers of coronavirus pandemic
© Bonnie Cash

Top Trump administration health officials plan to tell a House committee this week that the coronavirus pandemic will not end anytime soon, and the upcoming flu season could make it even worse.

"While it remains unclear how long the pandemic will last, COVID-19 activity will likely continue for some time," officials will say Tuesday, according to a joint prepared testimony posted online. 

"If there is COVID-19 and flu activity at the same time, this could place a tremendous burden on the health care system related to bed occupancy, laboratory testing needs, personal protective equipment and health care worker safety," the officials will say.

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Tuesday's Energy and Commerce Committee hearing will feature testimony from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll Overnight Health Care: Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit | White House puts off action on surprise medical bills | Rising coronavirus cases spark fears of harsh winter NY health officials to review any vaccine approved by Trump MORE, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and the administration's testing czar, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir.

The hearing marks a rare opportunity for House Democrats to grill administration officials about their response to the coronavirus pandemic, as oversight efforts have been stymied by the White House's policy that senior officials are not allowed to testify without permission from Chief of Staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election White House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid MORE

“There have been a lot of unfortunate missteps in the Trump Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a statement.  

“This hearing will provide us an opportunity to hear from key Administration health officials about what is working, what still needs to be improved and what more Congress can do to help," Pallone said.

All four officials will testify in person, rather than remotely. They are likely to face questions from Democrats about how the administration has been responding to the latest surge in cases.

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The prepared testimony of the health officials contrasts with the rosy and sometimes dismissive rhetoric from President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE, Vice President Pence and other administration officials, who are eager to declare victory over the virus.

Yet coronavirus cases have been surging in states across the country. Nationally, cases are on the rise again after plateauing for about a week. Officials continue to attribute the rise in cases to increased testing, pointing particularly to an increase in young people now testing positive.

The new spike in the U.S. comes as states lift coronavirus restrictions and reopen previously closed businesses, encouraged by Trump and Pence. 

President Trump has also been pushing for a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed, approved and distributed by the end of the year. 

The breakneck pace of the administration's "Operation Warp Speed" vaccine development program has raised some concerns from advocates and lawmakers that under political pressure from Trump, a vaccine could be approved before it is proven safe and effective. 

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The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to have 300 million doses by January 2021, a time frame so condensed it is unprecedented in vaccine research. The administration has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

In the prepared testimony, officials won't give a specific timeframe for any potential vaccine. 

"The rigorous clinical testing required to establish vaccine safety and efficacy means that it might take some time for a licensed SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to be available to the general public," according to testimony from NIAID. "The COVID-19 response currently is focused on the proven public health practices of containment and mitigation."

The officials will also likely face sharp questions about the administration's testing strategy.

During his rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, Trump said he told officials to "slow down" testing because they were finding too many coronavirus cases in the country. 

Aides said the comments were made in jest, but the president has consistently said he believes widespread testing to be overrated and problematic because it leads to higher case counts. 

COVID-19 testing was scarce in the early days of the pandemic but availability improved significantly as commercial labs became involved in the effort. Some states are still reporting shortages of tests or testing materials, and testing often is still limited to those showing symptoms.  

There is no national testing strategy, as the administration has left it up to individual states to determine their own metrics. The White House has been reviewing testing plans submitted by states, as a qualification for receiving CDC funding.  

The health officials plan to describe how the administration is helping states to ramp up their testing capabilities in order to reopen safely. 

“Current efforts are focused on further scaling up testing capabilities to guarantee that each state has the testing supplies and capabilities they need to reopen according to their own individual state plans,” officials will say.