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Democrats: CDC ‘sidelined’ by Trump during pandemic response

CDC director says pandemic highlights the shortcomings of nation’s public health system

House Democrats criticized the Trump administration for politicizing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic during an appropriations hearing Thursday, while Republicans focused their questions on the economy and the prospects for longer-term funding.

Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and full Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., argued to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield that the administration took a political approach to the virus rather than one grounded in science.

“Instead of public health expertise driving our response to the pandemic, it appears CDC has been sidelined for political interests. That is dangerous. The stakes are too high,” said DeLauro during opening remarks at the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. “This committee supports the scientists and the public health officials at the CDC.”

Lowey similarly critiqued the president’s response.

“With all due respect, the virus does not respect state lines,” said Lowey. “A federal response is needed to truly protect the public. I don’t understand why CDC isn’t taking a leadership role and establishing testing benchmarks for each state to meet.”

DeLauro fired off a series of quick yes-or-no questions at Redfield, asking if the country has a vaccine, herd immunity, any evidence the virus has become less contagious, or if all states that are reopening have met the recommended guidelines.

Redfield responded no to each question.

“I’ve come to a conclusion. In March, we made decisions based on public health expertise but now we are basing decisions or making these decisions based on the interests of politicians in the White House,” said DeLauro. “I have such admiration for the work that you and CDC do, but if you and the CDC are driving this bus, you’re taking us in a dangerous direction.”

Lowey asked if Nancy Messonnier, CDC’s director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, was sidelined by the administration for sounding the alarm about COVID-19 in February.

“What does this say to the public health professionals at CDC who may be fearful of retribution for doing their jobs?” said Lowey.

Redfield said Messonnier is a “great scientific ally” and disputed that she had been sidelined.

But Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., argued that what was actually political were delays in reopening states.

“If you want to talk about things based on politics, some of these delayed reopenings are based purely on politics,” said Harris. “There really isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that at this point in time would delay these reopenings consistent with CDC guidelines of social distancing.”

Harris also referred to the “cult of masks” and questioned some of the data on different types of face coverings.

Redfield later emphasized the importance of wearing masks to slow down transmission.

Health disparities

Redfield acknowledged that racial and ethnic health disparities are being amplified by the pandemic

“We’re hearing a clamoring for equity and healing for positive permanent change to health and social disparities that exist in our nation,” he said. “Unfortunately, this pandemic has also highlighted the shortcomings of our nation’s public health system.”

He also previewed an HHS announcement issued later Thursday that requires COVID-19 laboratory tests to include demographic information.

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir announced to reporters on a call that labs testing for COVID-19 must request demographic data, around age, sex, race and ethnicity beginning Aug. 1. Giroir said the information was “absolutely critical” for understanding the pandemic. 

“This is a specific guideline that comes under the authority of the CARES Act,” Giroir said. The law (PL 116-136), enacted earlier this year, allowed the Health and Human Services secretary to determine what types of data would be required for COVID-19 tests, Giroir said.

“This is an official guideline with enforcement powers behind it,” he said. Labs operating under Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorizations to conduct tests for the novel coronavirus that stray from these requirements could receive FDA enforcement letters or fines. 

Giroir said the department anticipates most states will be able to smoothly incorporate the changes.

Test manufacturers and distributors are unlikely to face penalties. The change comes after a months-long battle for more data on the pandemic’s deeper toll on African Americans.

At the hearing, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., asked for additional information on the effects of the virus on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Redfield said he regretted that he did not have more demographics information to report earlier.

In light of recent protests against police brutality toward African Americans, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., asked if Redfield would provide guidance on limiting the use of tear gas during the respiratory pandemic.

“I think you raise an important point,” said Redfield. When pushed by Pocan, Redfield said he would pass on the idea at the next administration coronavirus task force meeting.

Subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., worried that future supplemental funding bills would not be sufficient to prevent and handle another health crisis.

“We are responding right now in a crisis mode with supplementals. I am really concerned about what we do going forward,” he said. “What kind of budget do we need in terms of sustained commitment and what areas do we need to focus on?”

Redfield emphasized the need for ramping up investments in data, a long-term base budget to augment local funding, and investing and expanding the workforce.

He said 30,000 to 100,000 new contact tracers would be necessary by September.

Emily Kopp contributed to this report.

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