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Health officials: US not scaling back COVID-19 testing capacity

Fauci calls nation’s response to pandemic a “mixed bag"

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Top federal health officials told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday that President Donald Trump never told them to slow down testing, despite the president’s recent remarks suggesting he did.

“None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing. That just is a fact. In fact, we will be doing more testing,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the hearing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir all similarly said they were not instructed to scale back testing. Giroir, who oversees the nation’s testing capacity, said he expects the United States will have the capacity to conduct 40 million to 50 million tests for the virus by the fall.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arrives to testify Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The officials’ assertions come after Trump said during a campaign rally in Tulsa Saturday he’d directed officials to slow down testing, an assertion that aides said was only made in jest. Asked about the comments on Tuesday, Trump said, “I don’t kid.”

As Trump left for another trip to Phoenix Tuesday before the hearing began, Fauci said the nation’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic had been a “mixed bag.”

“The New York metropolitan area, which has been hit extraordinarily hard, has done very well in bringing the cases down and using the guidelines that we have very carefully put together in a stepwise fashion to try and carefully reopen their city and their state,” Fauci said. “However, in other areas of the country, we’re now seeing a disturbing surge of infections…. And that’s something that I’m really quite concerned about.”

Redfield said the increased number of cases being reported across the country is driven partially by the nation’s growing number of tests, as Trump has pointed out, but said there’s also evidence of greater transmission in many communities.

“While overall [national] case counts are going down, several communities are seeing increased cases driven by multiple factors including increased testing, outbreaks and evidence of community transmission,” he said.

The officials urged people to be judicious about how they go out in public as states and cities lift restrictions, noting that the pandemic is still raging. Fauci said the next several weeks will be crucial to trying to get the virus under control.

Fauci said it was too soon to tell if a recent drop in the number of deaths from the virus is meaningful, noting that “deaths always lag considerably behind cases.”

He said that young people especially should be aware that the pandemic is ongoing and that they have a “dual responsibility” to protect others in their community, even if they’re not concerned about personally contracting the virus.

“What they need to appreciate is that they are a part of the process of dynamics of an outbreak, and although they themselves may perceive that they are at very low risk for something that would be deleterious to them, by propagating the process of the outbreak, they may be indirectly hurting people by infecting someone, who then infects someone who then infects someone who’s vulnerable,” he said.

Fall outlook

Several committee members asked the panel about the prospects for schools to reopen this fall. Officials said that decisions would likely be made on a regional level and would vary across the country.

Fauci also said he expected that a vaccine could be available as soon as the end of this year, and that the risks that officials and pharmaceutical companies are taking to develop a vaccine are financial, not scientific. One vaccine candidate is poised to enter a Phase III study next month, he confirmed, with others to come in later months.

“Although you can never guarantee, at all, the safety and efficacy of a vaccine until you actually test it in the field, we feel cautiously optimistic, based on the concerted effort and the fact that we are taking financial risks — not risks to safety, not risks to the integrity of the science, but financial risks — to be able to be ahead of the game, so that when, and I believe it will be when and not if, we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public,” Fauci said.

The CDC is currently determining who will be prioritized to receive a vaccine when one is available, Redfield said. That could vary on which candidate ultimately is available first, he said.

Redfield added that the CDC is urging people more than usual to get a flu vaccine this year as a way of trying to limit the burden on the health system during the traditional flu season if coronavirus cases are still rising.

“This fall, before the seasonal circulation of influenza increases, I encourage the American people to be prepared and to embrace flu vaccination with confidence for yourself, your families and the communities,” he said. “This single act will save lives.”

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