Some of the most senior government officials assigned to the coronavirus crisis briefed House lawmakers Friday, and assured them that the Trump administration is not impeding their work or their communications with the public.
Representatives on both sides of the aisle have lauded some aspects of the outbreak response, while voicing frustration with others.
“I support the administration’s declaration of a public health emergency,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in her opening remarks to the briefing. “That said, I have grave concerns about the lack of transparency and unwillingness to allow public health experts to speak freely about what is happening. ”
After reports Thursday that Vice President Mike Pence’s office would be coordinating all government communications about the virus’ spread, Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers at Friday’s briefing that he would be backing out of a series of T.V. interviews this weekend.
Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and is among the country’s leading experts on contagious diseases. He told lawmakers that the decision had to do with the changing leadership around the coronavirus this week.
On Wednesday, Pence was tapped by Trump to spearhead the administration’s response, and the vice president’s office announced Thursday that it had named a separate coronavirus coordinator.
“Dr. Fauci said that when everything changed over to the Vice President being given the authority to lead the effort, Dr. Fauci had been already booked on a number of programs,” said Rep. Mark Tacano, D-Calif. “He said to everyone — I am not being muzzled, I want to clear that up.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is among the Trump administration’s most vocal critics, said he believed Fauci.
“The President has made so many false statements on so many things you can’t really rely on the White House, but thankfully we do have good career people at the agencies and we are going to rely on them to be candid with us,” Schiff said. “At the same time, I think [Fauci] should have been permitted to keep the commitments that he had made… He’s among the most knowledgeable in the federal government.”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Friday that there was “no hard and fast process” about requiring permission from the vice president’s office before making public comment, but that the administration was trying to “coordinate our messages.”
“No one’s being stifled, no one’s being told what to say,” Kudlow told reporters inside the White House. “You’ve got veterans in [the National Institutes of Health] and CDC with immense knowledge of these things, they’ve been through this before, and we’re all ears.”
“We want to hear what they have to say,” he said, adding, “there’s a big difference between stifling and coordinating.”
In an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Democratic members of Congress were only complaining about transparency regarding the coronavirus in an effort to “bring down the president.”
He said the administration was holding sparsely attended hearings about the outbreak weeks ago, but Democrats only started caring once impeachment proceedings were over.
“Is [coronavirus] real? It is absolutely real,” Mulvaney said, before also noting that the fatality rate of the virus is lower than other recent global outbreaks like Ebola and SARS.
Mulvaney also bemoaned how media organizations have covered the outbreak, saying he recommended one way to calm the financial markets that have been in freefall this week is by “telling people to turn off their televisions for 24 hours.”
After Friday’s briefing, many members voiced frustration with the slow response from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically related to testing for the coronavirus.
California representatives like Rep. John Garamendi, whose district includes one of the military bases where people who have been evacuated from China are being quarantined, says health officials say they have updated policies that made it difficult to test a wide range of people who presented symptoms associated with the COVID-19 virus.
“They had very strict protocols that said you cannot get tested unless you can show that you were coming from China and then exposed to those who were here that came from China,” Garamendi told reporters after a briefing. “That protocol prohibited testing. Ultimately, can they explain why they did it? Stupidity. That’s my word, not theirs.”
Garamendi and others say they are also frustrated that there is a shortage of accurate tests available to health care workers in the U.S.
“They sat on their hands for two months,” Garamendi said. “Tests are readily available from Korea, now.”
Others, including Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who was a practicing physician until his election in 2003, says he is concerned that the number of cases in the U.S. will inevitably grow and the number of tests available is insufficient.
“We have kind of moved from the days of containment to mitigation,” Burgess said. “My understanding is that two weeks ago there was a test that was being distributed and then there was a question about the efficacy.”
Indeed, a problem with one ingredient in test kits that the CDC distributed to labs around the country created a frustrating bottleneck in testing, requiring most testing to occur at the CDC in Atlanta, as NPR’s Rob Stein has reported. The CDC announced Thursday that it had resolved the issue.
Congress is in agreement that emergency funding is needed to address the outbreak, which has infected more than 80,000 people worldwide and more than a dozen people in the U.S., but House and Senate leaders are still haggling over the exact figures.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that his chamber will consider a supplemental funding plan for the coronavirus within the next two weeks, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress was “coming close to a bipartisan agreement.”
The number two Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Dick Durbin, tweeted Friday that Pence reached out to him about working together.
And on Friday, lawmakers still tried to project a sense of calm about the virus.
“People shouldn’t panic,” said Rep. Joe Morelle, D-N.Y. “The risk right now in the United States is very low.”