On Tuesday, May 12, 2020, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” The purpose of the hearing was to highlight what federal, state, and local governments are doing to help Americans return to work and school as rapidly and safely as possible.
Many Committee members, including Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), and all the witnesses testified virtually, and only a handful of Senators were present in the Committee room (socially-distancing). Witnesses included Dr. Fauci from the National Institute of Health (NIH), an immunologist, and the top advisor to the White House for combatting the coronavirus, Dr. Robert Redfield from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Admiral Brett Giroir from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Dr. Stephen Hahn from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Chairman Alexander opened the hearing up by clarifying what he meant when he stated that testing in the US is “impressive,” meaning that in America, we have tested more than any other country. He wanted to address what would persuade students and teachers to go back to school in August and that more testing and additional treatment to prevent death is crucial. He stated that “all roads back to school and work lead to more testing.” Chairman Alexander noted that almost all of us underestimated this virus and that the purpose of the Committee was to put into law for improvements to address the next pandemic. Ranking Member Murray spoke about what is needed before the US can safely reopen and shared that the Trump Administration criticized the experts at the CDC guidance to reopen as too prescriptive. She emphasized that lives are at stake and that truth is essential. She stated: “One thing that’s already abundantly clear? We need dramatically more testing. It’s unacceptable we still don’t have a national strategic plan to make sure testing is fast, free, and everywhere.”
Dr. Fauci emphasized that the role of NIH in addressing COVID-19 in a four-fold approach, knowledge, diagnostic, testing, and safe vaccine. He mentioned that there are eight vaccines in clinical development and that if they are successful, they could be out late fall or early winter. Dr. Redfield stated that the most powerful tool to front this pandemic is to slow the spread of this virus and that rapid, timely testing is essential. Admiral Giroir noted that by September 2020 that the nation would be up to completing 40 to 50 million tests a month.
Chairman Alexander asked Dr. Fauci, what would take three months for public schools and colleges and universities to look like? Dr. Fauci answered that student safety is easier to answer if treatment is available, and there is a vaccine for fall. Admiral Girior agreed that the availability of testing would be crucial and that the strategy would be based on community spread. At the same time, Dr. Redfield highlighted the need for education and social distancing on campuses and schools. Ranking Murray asked Dr. Fauci to explain what the consequences of a needless necessity of reopening soon would be. Dr. Fauci stated that there is no doubt there will be an outbreak and that it is the ability and capability to respond to those important cases.
Senator Sanders (ID-VT) shared that 80,000 have died from the pandemic, and given the overwhelming health care needs like in New York where people have died at home, the number is likely higher. Historically, the 1918 pandemic virus exploded in the fall, stated Senator Sanders. He asked Dr. Fauci if we are fearful that the virus could be worse, and he answered that “it is possible” that we will see a second wave. Senator Sanders also asked if there was a fair assumption that vaccines would be distributed free of charge. “I hope so,” stated Dr. Hahn, and that the vaccine’s payment is not the responsibility of the FDA. Admiral Girior reiterated that the vaccine needs to reach all Americans regardless of income. In regards to testing, Senator Cassidy (R-LA) asked Dr. Hahn, if the testing for all Americans includes children? Dr. Hahn concluded his remarks by stating that they are in discussion about including children, but Phase 2 and Phase 3 will consist of the most vulnerable populations. Senator Cassidy emphasized that the risk of not reopening soon has major consequences for children, such as the inability to monitor child abuse and neglect and the risk of students missing out on a year of education.
Senator Paul (R-KY) questioned if individuals who had coronavirus, including workers, could be reassured that they are immune to the virus. Dr. Fauci stated that “it is a reasonable assumption given what we know about recovery to immunity.” In regard to school, Senator Paul said that “a national strategy for school is ridiculous” before asserting that Dr. Fauci is not the deciding factor for all things coronavirus. Dr. Fauci reasserted that this virus is different than what was seen in China and that we must be careful about how children respond, which is his reason for being humble and cautious.
On work strategies, Senator Baldwin (D-WI) asked Dr. Redfield if the White House testing protocols present a model for other essential workplaces. He answered that each workplace has to develop its model and follow the CDC guidelines of social distancing. Senator Murphy (D-CT) asked why the CDC guidance for reopening has not been released, and Dr. Redfield answered that a series of guidance would be posted soon.
Dr. Redfield agreed that rebuilding the nation’s public health infrastructure is essential. Every state containment is different, and many like Senator Murkowski (R-AK) worried about becoming a hotspot. Senator Scott (R-SC) worried about minority groups, specifically African Americans and Hispanics, and nursing homes being vulnerable to this disease. It is clear that we do not have the coronavirus contained, but we are going in the right direction, stated Dr. Fauci, if we continue with guidelines around social distancing and washing our hands.