- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2020

The federal watchdog for the department that includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a total of four press statements on its website in 2019-20, and three of them dealt with the health care of migrant children at the border.

The Washington Times reviewed reports over the years by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The department and the CDC are being criticized for a critical shortage of testing equipment and other systems when the coronavirus established a foothold in the U.S. in January and February.

The Times’ review of IG webpages did not uncover any comprehensive analysis of how the CDC performed in fighting previous epidemics, such as the 2009 swine flu. A spokeswoman for the inspector general told The Times that the office over the years has chosen to break out specific disease responses for study instead of a “granddaddy of all reports.”

The Times didn’t find any reports highlighting or warning of any inventory shortfalls in the National Strategic Stockpile. The stockpile is an $8 billion stash of medicine, medical equipment and other materials positioned around the country and maintained by the CDC until October 2018, when control shifted to an assistant secretary at HHS.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a close adviser to President Trump in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, said the CDC and the testing system failed in getting test kits to the public early on.

“The system, the system does not, is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failing,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight Committee on March 11.

He later said the failure fell on the CDC, not the White House.

“The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we are not set up for that,” Dr. Fauci said. “Do I think we should be? Yes, but we are not.”

At daily White House coronavirus briefings, President Trump has complained that he inherited an antiquated system for producing and distributing test kits, protective gear and life-sustaining ventilators.

“It was broken,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday. “It was all broken.”

He says his administration now is modernizing the process. Today, more than 1 million coronavirus tests have been completed in the U.S., by far the world’s most.

CDC Director Robert R. Redfield acknowledged the failure.

He told the Oversight Committee that his agency placed 75,000 test systems in various public laboratories that are not equipped to process a large number of samples. In a furious hunt for more kits, the administration changed course and turned to commercial firms, including LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, which do 90% of such work.

At a previous House hearing, Dr. Redfield told of an inadequate system.

“These public health labs need redundancy. They don’t have it,” he testified. “This is when I go back about the core capability of data, lab, people … The truth is we’ve not invested, we’ve under-invested in the public health labs … There’s not enough people. There’s not enough internal capacity. There’s no surge capacity.”

The Times looked at reports produced by the health department IG under the heading of “Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response.” The IG produced two reports in 2019 — one on the international response to the Ebola virus, the other on the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of bio agents and toxins.

In 2018, there were two reports — one on the National Institutes of Health’s handling the same agents, the other on hospitals’ “improved preparedness for emerging infectious diseases.” It found most hospitals were not prepared for the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

There was a 2017 report on the Strategic National Stockpile that only dealt with security against theft, not the adequacy of inventory.

None of the listed reports uncovered what Dr. Fauci would come to describe as a CDC “failing” in not being able to ramp up testing.

‘A significant priority’

Katherine Harris, spokeswoman for the HHS inspector general, said the office has found it more effective to focus on specific infectious diseases responses rather than looking at overall performance.

“We don’t tend to make a tome of grand daddy of all reports,” Ms. Harris told The Times. “We have a tendency to take different looks with different teams around the country on various issues.”

“If you do an A-to-Z-everything all about CDC, that weighs it down as opposed to having different teams take different looks and have kind of a portfolio to put together,” she added.

Yet for the coronavirus, the inspector general’s office is breaking with tradition. It announced on Feb. 28 on Twitter, “We will conduct a comprehensive review of @HHSGov’s #coronavirus response efforts.”

The Times looked at recent inspector general statements posted on its web pages. There were seven in 2018-19 and one this year.

The first release for 2018 was “Diversity, Inclusion Enrich the Workplace.” Two of three releases in 2019 dealt with migrant children, as did the only 2020 release to date.

There were seven news releases in 2017, including “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month” and “Diversity and Inclusion Fuels HHS Office of Inspector General’s Fraud-Fighting Success.”

Under the heading “Media Matters,” the IG office made seven posts in 2019, two of which dealt with migrant children. There were also reports on opioid abuse and elderly neglect.

Ms. Harris provided a list of 25 IG reports on combating infectious diseases over the years. Topics include vaccine storage, school-located vaccination programs, laboratory staff training, and state and local influenza pandemic preparedness in 2009. For that 10-year-old study, the IG selected five states and 10 localities and looked at their ability to create alternative care sties. Most were in early stages.

As for three of four press statements in 2019-20 focusing on HHS care for alien children, Ms. Harris said: “Yes, keeping children safe is a significant priority for our agency, evidenced by the work you cite about the care of unaccompanied minors, but also our work focused on safety and health issues at child care facilities, children in foster care and children with disabilities.”

“We use a variety of communication tools to inform the public and stakeholders about our work, including videos, podcasts, media outreach, press releases/statements and pages on our website,” she said.

The office has a fairly active Twitter account, announcing it launched a new COVID-19 portal.

HHS does not have a Senate-confirmed inspector general for the IG system’s largest office, which has a staff of 1,600. The office is headed by Christi Grimm, who in January became principal deputy inspector general, succeeding an acting IG who retired.

Ms. Grimm has outlined five inquiries and surveys her team is conducting or will conduct on COVID-19 issues. The topics include a “comprehensive” look at how HHS has responded, hospital responses and emergency preparedness for unaccompanied alien children.

The open-ended review of HHS’ response could include the testing snafu and stockpile shortages.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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