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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 MurrayOvernight Health Care: 50 million coronavirus vaccines given | Pfizer news | Biden health nominees Rand Paul criticized for questioning of transgender health nominee Biden health nominee faces first Senate test 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 BurrSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Overnight Health Care: COVID-19 vaccine makers pledge massive supply increase | Biden health nominee faces first Senate test | White House defends reopening of facility for migrant kids 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 MurphyOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster New rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.) praised the administration officials, saying the U.S. is "well-prepared to respond to the epidemic."