The federal government has secured 50 million of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests President Biden promised and will start delivery this month, a health official said at a Senate hearing in which both parties grilled administration officials over the tests and confusing guidance on the virus.
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration has completed four contracts and the U.S. Postal Service has agreed to distribute the tests while U.S. Digital Services administers a website where people can order tests.
“We anticipate the first tests going out at the end of the month with remaining tests going out over the next 60 days,” Ms. O’Connell told the Senate health committee.
She offered the update as the nation matched its pandemic record in hospitalizations, now averaging about 140,000 patients, due to the now-ubiquitous omicron variant.
“We’re in a room right now. I’m sure someone here has omicron,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, making a broader point about possible exposure to the virus and demands on limited testing supplies.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said reports from South Africa and Britain suggest the variant is less severe overall but is spreading so fast that it is reaching the unvaccinated and medically vulnerable at an unprecedented rate.
“Despite a potential decrease in severity, the substantial number of absolute cases is resulting in hospitalization increases across all age groups, including children aged 0 to 4,” Dr. Walensky testified, referring to young children who are not eligible for vaccines yet.
There is emerging evidence the omicron wave is beginning to peak in parts of the country, notably New York City, but it might move to other parts of the country and cause more havoc.
“The rise was really sharp. The decline in infections will be steep but not as steep as the rise,” Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, told The Washington Times. “I expect things to start falling … to become more stabilized, in early February. The places I’m concerned about are the Midwest and the Mountain West.”
Many Americans are struggling to find tests amid the surge, sparking complaints that Mr. Biden was caught flat-footed by the omicron variant after its discovery around Thanksgiving.
Mr. Biden said insurers will be required to reimburse enrollees for up to eight at-home tests per person, per month, as he tries to get his plan for sending 500 million tests off the ground. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the administration will provide details on the website where they can order tests later this week.
Some senators said the White House wasted critical time earlier in the year.
“Unfortunately the administration was wrong in not building testing capacity when we all thought COVID was going away,” Mr. Romney said. “Omicron came along, caught people by surprise, we were obviously badly mistaken — the administration was — and we’re suffering in part because of that.”
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said it is perplexing that after two years, the administration seems unable to prepare for emerging threats or communicate sound advice to the American people.
“Quite frankly, you’ve lost their trust,” Mr. Burr said.
Senators also questioned the administration’s repeated insistence the U.S. is steeped in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” pointing to the great number of vaccinated persons who get infected.
Officials emphasized the relative risk of developing severe disease, with the unvaccinated at 17 times greater risk of being hospitalized and 20 times greater risk of dying.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also emphasized the importance of a booster shot.
“You get a rather significant reconstitution of the protection, particularly against hospitalization,” he said.
He also said it will be important to develop a vaccine against all coronaviruses. He said his part of the National Institutes of Health is awarding funds to four academic institutions to pursue a pan-coronavirus vaccine.
Dr. Walensky, meanwhile, tried to reduce confusion over isolation guidance that was altered around the holidays.
She said people who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate for five days, regardless of vaccination status. If they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving — for instance, their fever has been gone for 24 hours — they no longer have to isolate but should wear a well-fitting mask at home and in public for an additional five days.
During that five-day period, she said, people should avoid travel and activities in which they cannot wear a mask.
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, demanded the clarification after hearing from a number of constituents who are exhausted and confused by the guidance.
At the same time, she said Republicans cannot complain without doing their part to fight the virus.
She accused them of demanding in-classroom learning, without voting for funding to help that happen. Ms. Murray also criticized some Republicans for being willing to roast the CDC for its confusing guidance but unwilling to call out misinformation from other parts of their own party.
“We’re not going to get out of this crisis by treating each challenge as a political opportunity,” Ms. Murray said.
Dr. Fauci on Tuesday accused Sen. Rand Paul of attacking him for political gain, holding up a screenshot of the Kentucky Republican’s website that shows he is fundraising off their high-profile spats.
“I ask myself, ‘why would the senator want to do this?’ Go to Rand Paul’s website and you see, ‘Fire Dr. Fauci’ with a little box that says ‘contribute here.’ You can do $5, $10, $20, $100,” the doctor said.
Dr. Fauci came prepared with paper materials after Mr. Paul said Dr. Fauci papered over concerns the coronavirus was crafted in a Chinese lab in Wuhan. The senator said the NIH doctor conspired to characterize the scientists who questioned the lab activities or heavy-handed societal restrictions during the pandemic as “fringe.”
“You think it’s a great success what’s happened so far? You think the lockdowns were good for our kids?” Mr. Paul said. “You think we’ve slowed down the death rate?”
Dr. Fauci said he tries to track the science and support sound guidance.
“Everything I’ve said has been in support of the CDC guidelines,” Dr. Fauci said. “Wear a mask, get boosted, get vaccinated.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.