Biden health officials slammed at hearing for confusing pandemic messaging

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during Covid-19 on Thursday, September 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

Top Biden administration health officials faced pointed questions during a Senate hearing Tuesday about confusion surrounding pandemic guidance.

Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Health Committee, blasted the administration’s difficulties in communicating information on testing, boosters and isolation.

“This administration has time and again squandered its opportunities and made things worse in the decisions you’ve made on testing and treatments and most crucially in communicating with the American people,” Burr said during the hearing.

“I’m hoping that you’ll understand that my criticism comes from a place of concern. Because your communication efforts are a mess and have only made things worse,” Burr added.

Burr slammed last summer’s announcement, and then reversal, that vaccinated people did not have to wear masks indoors.

Burr said the rollout of boosters was a “disaster” and the recent update to the isolation and quarantine period left people confused. 

In late December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened the time it said people should isolate if infected with COVID-19 or quarantine if exposed. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious diseases doctor, hinted that there would be a testing component added.

But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky did not back away from her initial guidance and said a negative test was not necessary to leave isolation — a person could take a test if they wanted, but should extend isolation if they continue to test positive.    

“I’m not questioning the science,” Burr said. “But I’m questioning your communication strategies. It’s no wonder the American people are confused.”

Walensky and the CDC have come under fire for failing to adequately communicate agency guidance from people both outside and inside the agency, reflecting rising frustration with the administration’s efforts. 

Later in the hearing, Burr expressed frustration at the continued shortage of at-home tests and questioned the administration’s ability to procure the 500 million tests President Biden announced in December. 

“Something’s not right here, guys, on testing,” Burr said, noting that there are currently only contracts signed for 50 million tests. 

“Testing’s broken. … When you guys huddle inside the COVID team, try to get the administration to refrain from making these proclamations until we have the product,” he said. 

During the hearing, Walensky said the omicron variant accounted for 98 percent of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in the week ending Jan. 8, up from 95 percent in the previous week.

Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock acknowledged the challenge and strain from omicron on hospitals and health systems. 

“I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID. All right, and what we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens,” Woodcock said.

“I think right now, we need to focus on continuity of operations for hospitals and other essential services as this variant sweeps through the population. I don’t think that will last a really long time, but I think that’s where we are right now. So I don’t think prior approaches reflect what’s going on right now,” she added.

Tags Anthony Fauci CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 FDA Joe Biden Omicron variant Richard Burr Rochelle Walensky
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