Senior federal health officials on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans from the highly contagious variant of Omicron as they faced withered accusations from lawmakers over the rare tests of coronavirus and puzzling advice on how people who test positive for the virus could get back to normal life.
Joined by heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, called the wave of Omicron cases a “massive and unprecedented surge.”
“This is an extraordinary virus, which we haven’t even seen up close for over 100 years. It’s a very cunning virus, “which has” fooled everyone all the time, from the time it first entered Delta, until now Omicron, “he said.
“We are doing our best,” he added.
Lawmakers at the hearing said the government failed to understand the country’s needs for virus testing, would only be able to deliver on its promise to provide half a billion until after the peak of current wave and would have distorted critical public health messages.
The nearly four-hour hearing took place at a critical inflection point in the country’s fight against the pandemic. Coupling the Delta variant with Omicron has resulted in an extraordinary rise in cases. More than 735,000 infections are reported every day in the United States, according to a New York Times database. Modeling scenarios cited in an internal government document obtained by The Times, dated January 5, indicate more than a million confirmed infections daily by the end of this month.
This number is widely considered a vast undercoverage due to the scarcity of testing and the widespread failure of people to report positive home test results to government authorities. While the actual number of infections is unknown, officials in the Biden administration recognize that the country will be inundated with positive tests for the virus, even though symptoms are often mild.
“It’s hard to deal with what’s really going on right now which is that most people are going to catch Covid,” said Dr Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, offering one of the most cutting-edge recognitions of any federal government. official since the coup of Omicron. She added: “What we need to do is make sure that the hospitals can still function, the transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this is happening.”
Federal and state health officials are particularly concerned that hospitals could be overrun, especially with many ICU staff and patients still overcrowded, including from a previous wave of Delta cases. On average over the past seven days, more than 135,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus, an 83% increase from two weeks ago.
The country this week set a single-day record for the number of hospitalized patients with the virus. Hospitalization totals include people who accidentally tested positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19, but there is no national data showing how many people are in this category. Senior administration officials said in interviews on Monday that infections and hospitalizations are expected to peak by the end of January and then drop sharply.
When asked on Tuesday if he was worried about the country’s fight against the virus, Mr Biden said he was “concerned about the pandemic just because it isn’t slowing down much around the world” . He added that federal officials were working to help states and hospitals. “I have no doubts that we are on the right track,” he told reporters before leaving to speak in Atlanta.
During the hearing, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, praised the administration’s efforts to provide vaccines and treatment to Americans, but said health workers had still been scattered since. two years and that schools were “worried about having to close again if they can’t get the support they need for testing.”
Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the panel, said the Biden administration spent months making confusing and contradictory recommendations. He cited zigzag advice on booster shots and noted that this month Dr Fauci publicly contradicted CDC director Dr Rochelle P. Walensky by suggesting that the agency’s advice on the isolation of those who had tested positive would be revised to include testing. recommendation.
“Most Americans cannot understand anything about this administration,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama. “Sometimes it seems like no one is responsible.”
Mr Burr also harshly criticized the administration’s promise to deliver 500 million rapid tests to Americans’ homes, saying Mr Biden had pledged to do so without having the tests in hand.
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said the scarcity of testing “appears to have been entirely preventable” and the administration did not anticipate the need even though Congress allocated billions of dollars for the efforts to test.
Dawn O’Connell, deputy administration secretary for preparedness and response, said when federal health officials saw Omicron sweep across South Africa and Europe, “we immediately contacted our manufacturers to understand the supply constraints they had and to assess their peak capacity. . “
“We also met with them daily to make sure they get what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act has been used in recent weeks to help liberate supplies and manufacturing capabilities.
She said the administration in the fall had also invested $ 3 billion to support the manufacture of rapid tests, but admitted that “it is not enough.”
She said if some of the half-billion tests the government bought would be sent to Americans by the end of January, it would take two months to distribute the rest. By then, as one senator pointed out, Omicron’s push will likely have peaked a long time ago.
Only 50 million of the promised 500 million tests have been purchased so far, Ms O’Connell said, although more deals are announced in the coming days.
Adele Hassan and Albert Sun contributed reports.