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Senators hit Trump health officials over coronavirus testing delays

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration Tuesday with Trump administration officials over coronavirus testing delays, arguing that many more unknown cases could be circulating in the U.S.

Faulty tests developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have led to delays in states where the virus has been detected. Officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told senators at a hearing Tuesday that testing will ramp up in the coming days, but lawmakers were skeptical.

“I have people in my state who may have been exposed. 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,” Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Overnight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Government watchdog to investigate allegations of Trump interference at CDC, FDA MORE (D-Wash.) said at a Senate hearing with public health officials. “We need to get these tests out. People need to know answers.”

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Washington health officials have confirmed 27 cases in the state, including 9 deaths.

The CDC said Tuesday that 60 cases of the coronavirus have been detected in the U.S.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.) questioned whether the virus would be spreading in affected states if the U.S. were "better prepared."

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"It doesn't seem to be that we were," he said at the hearing.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told senators that he expects a private manufacturer to ship 1 million tests to non-public health labs by the end of the week, a move that he said would vastly increase the number of people who can be tested. 

“One million tests sounds a little aggressive,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination MORE (D-Conn.), noting that fewer than 4,000 people have been tested for the virus in the six weeks since it was first found in the U.S.

While the FDA works with the private sector to manufacture tests, the CDC is responsible for supplying tests to state public health labs.

The CDC said those public health labs will be able to test up to 75,000 people by the end of the week.

That represents a "tiny piece of the testing world," said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.

The CDC has come under fire by lawmakers for the delays in the distribution of the kits and in testing possible cases.

“The CDC’s piece in this is to supply the public health labs with tests,” Schuchat said.

The agency is “developing the tests very quickly and detected some problems after the quality control steps were measured,” she added.

In a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC's director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, acknowledged possible contamination in labs could have caused problems with the tests. She did not elaborate, citing an “ongoing investigation.”

She also declined to comment on the CDC’s strict criteria for testing, which initially only covered people who had traveled to other countries where there are outbreaks or had close contact with someone with the coronavirus.

“What we really need to focus on now is where we are today,” she said. “There is spread across many countries across the world and spread in communities in the United States. And we need to be focused on what we're doing today to identify patients who are ill, make sure that they're getting appropriately treated and tested and make sure that we're protecting our communities by keeping ourselves and each other safe.”

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The CDC has recently expanded its testing criteria to include people who have a serious respiratory illness with no obvious diagnosis.

Some Republicans at Tuesday's hearing defended the administration's response to the virus.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenate Health Committee chair asks Cuomo, Newsom to 'stop second guessing' FDA on vaccine efficacy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) praised the administration officials, saying the U.S. is "well-prepared to respond to the epidemic."