WASHINGTON — The Senate’s first major hearing on the Covid-19 pandemic began with the sounds of Bernie Sanders muttering. The progressive lawmaker had, relatably, forgotten to mute himself.
Soon after, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) briefly froze on screen from what appeared to be her kitchen. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, spoke in front of a blindingly white backdrop that lent his testimony a saintlike air. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) orchestrated the hearing from his basement lair.
Lawmakers and four top federal officials overseeing the Trump administration’s coronavirus response had convened to answer a pressing question: Whether, after months of lockdown, American life can finally restart.
But the hearing itself made clear that even the Senate isn’t ready to resume business as usual. The four Trump administration witnesses all testified by video after recent exposure to a White House aide with coronavirus. Alexander, the chair of the Senate’s health committee, did the same after one of his own staffers tested positive.
And though the hearing represented lawmakers’ first real chance to grill Trump administration officials on the federal government’s widely criticized coronavirus response, it only rarely devolved into the partisan anger that has characterized Congress in recent years.
Instead, lawmakers from both parties took turns questioning the four witnesses: Hahn; Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Brett Giroir, the assistant health secretary who has overseen the federal government’s Covid-19 testing efforts.
The hearing didn’t provide any highlight-reel moments, but it did lend insight into the health officials’ broader views on whether it’s safe to reopen, the ongoing development of coronavirus drugs and vaccines, the accuracy of the U.S. death toll, and the pandemic’s broader impact on health care. Here are the six biggest takeaways.
1. Even expert senators are overly optimistic about vaccine development
Alexander asked Fauci if students at the University of Tennessee could expect that, by fall, they could return to class having received a vaccine that would make them immune to Covid-19.
Fauci’s reply was direct: It’s not happening.
“It’s a bit of a bridge too far,” he said. “Even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing [into] the ability of individuals going back to school this term.”
The fact that a key senator — the chairman of the Senate’s primary health-focused committee — even asked the question is a stark reminder of the immense, and perhaps unreasonable, expectations that the public has placed on biomedical researchers. If the federal government and drug companies worked together to develop an effective vaccine within a year, it would be considered something of a scientific miracle and upend the typical yearslong process for vaccine development. And even then, it would likely not be widely available for far longer.
But nonetheless, federal officials from both major parties, and President Trump himself, have seemed to take almost for granted that researchers will develop a vaccine within a year, then scale up production such that it’s accessible to most Americans. Much of Fauci’s testimony was spent reminding senators that that’s unlikely, and that in the near term, we can’t count on a vaccine to bring a quick end to the pandemic.
Fauci, however, did end his vaccine remarks on an encouraging note, saying achieving a vaccine within a year or two is fully within the realm of possibility.
“It’s definitely not a long shot,” Fauci says. “It’s clearly much more likely than not that somewhere in that time frame, we will get a vaccine for the virus.”
2. Fauci is more willing to buck Trump than other administration officials
Fauci warned in stark terms that steps to reopen the U.S. economy would inevitably lead to “really serious” consequences and a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances: When you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases appear,” he said. “My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci said.
Public health officials’ ability to conduct testing and contact-tracing, Fauci said, will determine whether those new cases morph into new outbreaks.
“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back,” Fauci said. Moving too quickly, he added, could lead to “suffering and death that could be avoided — but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery, because you’d almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”
His comments represent a dramatic contrast to Trump’s tone in recent days. Fauci, who has led the country’s infectious disease research for nearly four decades, has consistently warned that the U.S. needs to ramp up testing capacity to safely reopen. Trump, meanwhile, downplayed calls to add testing capacity during a Rose Garden press conference on Monday, saying the country had “prevailed” on testing, despite broad disagreement from public health experts.
Of course, it makes sense that Fauci is the least likely to toe the administration’s line: Of the four witnesses at the hearing, he’s the only one Trump didn’t appoint.
3. If the U.S. death toll is wrong, it’s because deaths are undercounted
Fauci warned that the true coronavirus death toll is almost certainly greater than the official tally of roughly 80,000, citing patients in New York City who likely died of Covid-19 before they were hospitalized, and therefore were never formally diagnosed.
“Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number,” Fauci said.
The remarks came just a day after Trump, during his Rose Garden press briefing, outlined a decidedly more optimistic message.
“The United States and Germany are the two best in deaths per 100,000 people,” Trump said. “Frankly, to me, that’s perhaps the most important number there is.”
There’s just one problem: Trump is completely, massively wrong. For one thing, the U.S. death rate, per capita, is more than double Germany’s. The U.S. mortality rate of roughly 25 in 100,000 citizens, in fact, is among the 10 worst among major countries. By comparison, South Korea has recorded roughly 0.5 deaths per 100,000 citizens — a rate roughly 50 times lower.
Nonetheless, many of Trump’s backers have begun to openly question the death toll, arguing it is likely far lower than the reported 80,000.
Fauci’s comments that the already-high U.S. death toll is an undercount is a sobering thought: As high as the coronavirus death toll has been, a top federal official is now testifying before the Senate that it’s likely significantly higher.
And Fauci didn’t even touch on the thousands of deaths likely to result from the pandemic more indirectly: from deferred medical procedures, from suicide or overdose, and from the the country’s general pause in preventive care.
4. Top officials still can’t say exactly how the government will distribute remdesivir
Last week, doctors and hospitals across the country sharply criticized the federal government’s system — or lack thereof — for distributing remdesivir, the Gilead Sciences antiviral that has shown some effectiveness at treating Covid-19.
Hospitals couldn’t figure out how to get their hands on the medication, and those that received it weren’t sure exactly why. The chaos and confusion clearly raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), for one, asked for answers about what happens going forward.
While Hahn acknowledged the federal government “learned a lot of lessons” from the remdesivir debacle, Trump administration officials didn’t provide many specifics. Hahn said only that the federal government would develop a “data-driven” approach to distributing remdesivir and other drugs moving forward.
5. Even the Senate isn’t ready to reopen
Alexander began the hearing with opening remarks delivered from his basement, by video conference, with his dog visibly napping in the background. Sanders spoke in front of a Red Hot Chili Peppers poster. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who attended the hearing in person, sported a bandana that lent him the air of a bank robber in the Old West.
It was a deeply bizarre alternative to a normally stately Senate hearing, and the discrepancy highlights a fundamental irony: Even as some lawmakers push to reopen the U.S. economy, it’s not clear whether the Senate itself is capable of resuming normal operations.
Alexander was participating from home after one of his staffers tested positive for Covid-19, and the four Trump administration witnesses were participating in a semi-quarantine after making contact with a coronavirus-positive White House aide.
More broadly, the fact that Covid-19 is spreading through Capitol Hill and among West Wing aides could pose a credibility issue: How can the Senate and White House reasonably oversee a national reopening when it’s still not safe to gather in a hearing room?
6. Congress is worried about health care beyond just Covid-19 cases
Collins, the Republican from Maine, is worried about your dentist. And for good reason: During Tuesday’s hearing, she amplified the concerns of dental health providers across the country, who have fretted that Americans skipping appointments for the sake of social distancing could cause a secondary crisis. Cavities that go unfilled could result in the need for root canals, and root canals that go untreated could result in the need for teeth to be extracted altogether.
It’s a reminder that Covid-19 has upended health care in ways that have nothing to do with the disease itself. As demand for services besides coronavirus treatment has plummeted, numerous hospitals and physician practices have slashed benefits for doctors and staff. Americans everywhere have deferred routine checkups and other “non-urgent” appointments, some health care providers have taken massive financial hits, and it’s still unclear how big of a ripple effect those changes might cause.