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Panel finds experts skittish on quick reopening of economy

Increased testing and contact tracing needed, select committee was told in its first meeting

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.,  chaired the initial meeting of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., chaired the initial meeting of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Experts appearing before the first hearing of a new COVID-19 panel agreed on several common strategies to use in decisions about reopening the economy, as lawmakers bickered over the format of the hearing itself.

In the inaugural hearing by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, both parties emphasized the importance of taking steps to ease economic restrictions, albeit in different ways.

Democrats have pushed for a more cautious approach, while some Republican-led states have been quicker to lift restrictions on businesses.

“While we all want to reopen as soon as possible, doing so before the proper safeguards are in place will cause more sickness and death. A premature opening would also cause greater harm to the economy,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who chaired the hearing.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the select committee’s ranking member, led a chorus of House Republicans who complained that it’s time to reopen the economy as well as in-person congressional activities.

“Unfortunately, the fact that the House is still not back in session runs counter to the message that we can safely reopen. This subcommittee along with the rest of Congress should be back here in D.C. for this briefing,” said Scalise. “A virtual briefing unnecessarily sends the wrong message.”

Lawmakers’ comments

House Democrats and Republicans took different approaches to their limited time for questioning a panel of five experts.

Democrats blamed the Trump administration for delays in widespread testing and protective equipment shortages, and argued that opening businesses too early could set back any progress made through social distancing.

California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, whose sister died from the virus, said progress cannot be made “with people competing against each other in the states” and called for stronger federal leadership.

“The question is where and when is the leadership going to come together,” she said.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri and other Republicans criticized the select committee’s Democrats for not asking Republicans to invite a witness.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., noted that two of the witnesses were former Food and Drug Administration commissioners under Republican presidents.

But Jordan called it an “unfair hearing” and “unfair process” and lashed out at a witness, Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, for saying one reason the economy was shut down was insufficient testing.

“Every expert on the left, right and center agrees that we had to shut down our economy because the outbreak got too big,” said Jha in response to Jordan. “The outbreak got too big because we didn’t have a testing infrastructure that allowed us to put our arms around the outbreak and so testing was the fundamental failure that forced our country to shut down.”

Experts’ suggestions

Each of the five witnesses outlined specific recommendations to safely open businesses and ease economic restrictions. All agreed on the need to increase testing in order to open up safely. Another common theme was accelerating contact tracing, in which people who had contact with infected people are identified and warned.

“Testing is the cornerstone of controlling any disease outbreak,” said Harvard’s Jha, who emphasized five steps before reopening businesses.

He said it’s necessary to get more visibility into the testing supply chain. He also said the federal government must coordinate supplies between states, offer guidance on testing strategies, provide more incentives for creating better COVID-19 tests, and be transparent about the level of testing necessary.

Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator who is now founding director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, also called for additional financial incentives from the federal government for better testing strategies.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said four conditions are necessary to minimize the spread of COVID-19: a reduction in positive cases for 14 days, the capacity to treat all COVID-19 cases with the proper standard of care, the ability to test all symptomatic individuals, and the capacity to isolate cases and trace infected people’s contacts.

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the government should focus on four major areas: testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said a phased introduction of reopening businesses is necessary, and agreed contact tracing and testing need to be ramped up.

“We are seeing signs of a slowing epidemic nationally but we’re still going to be reopening against the backdrop of more spread than we anticipated,” said Gottlieb. “People rightly want to know when this will be over and when they can get back to their normal lives. The reality is we may need to define a new normal.”

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